Maybe Susan Collins was right after all. The senator from Maine castigated progressive opponents for attempting to “bribe” her into voting against Brett Kavanaugh by promising not to spend the $1.3 million they’ve raised against her if she voted nay. The “bribe” accusation sounded a little hyperbolic, but the Washington Post’s Eli Rosenberg writes that it might be more spot-on than one would think:

The unusual fundraising effort by Maine People’s Alliance, Mainers for Accountable Leadership and activist Ady Barkan on the platform Crowdpac had raised more than $1 million by Tuesday — a not insignificant amount for a political race in the small state. But amidst the attention it was receiving were signs that its efforts could be backfiring.

At least one ethics expert consulted by The Washington Post said that it may very well violate federal bribery statutes, which prohibit giving or offering anything of value to government officials in exchange for any acts or votes. …

Adav Noti, a senior director at the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center, which works on rules of ethics and finance in government, told The Post that he thought the listing was illegal, noting that bribery is a federal crime.

“I think they’re playing a game to avoid the literal application of the bribery statute,” he said. “They have structured the campaign in a way that the action they will do if she does what she wants is that they will refund the money but that seems to be a fictional distinction. It still seems like they’re saying if you don’t do what we want we will spend $1 million and that strikes me as just as much as an inducement as saying we’ll give you $1 million if you do what we want.”

If it’s a bribe, it’s more of a reverse or negative bribe. The group isn’t actually giving her something of value in exchange for the no vote on Kavanaugh; they’re promising not to spend the money they’ve collected against her. On net that’s a valuable transaction, but it’s still the absence of action that they’re trading.

Does that count for bribery? It’s tough to say, and other experts contacted by Rosenberg don’t agree with Noti, although one did note that the effort against Collins looked “icky”:

“It seems kind of icky but it doesn’t rise to the level of bribery because there’s no agreement,” Jordan Libowitz, a spokesman for the Citizens for Ethics and Responsibilities. “It’s just the way money and politics tend to work these days.”

True, and Senate seats are valuable commodities … as Rod Blagojevich once observed before talking himself into a federal indictment. Raising money to campaign against Kavanaugh is certainly legal, as it is to campaign against Collins. Making an endorsement contingent on a vote is not just kosher, it’s a wide practice among all sorts of interest groups, as is threatening opposition over it. Making it explicitly about cash while the money is in hand, however, might cross a line. Maybe.

Would anyone prosecute it? Naah. But the IRS might take an interest in the 501(c)(4) status of the groups involved while they’re electioneering against Collins. Otherwise, the legal issues are academic, but the political damage from this ill-advised bullying campaign is likely to help Kavanaugh a lot more than these groups could have ever hurt him. Great job!