McCaskill plans to vote against embattled Kavanaugh for Supreme Court seat

U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill officially joined Wednesday the chorus of Democrats who will oppose federal Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s elevation to the Supreme Court, citing his record on dark money rather than newly revealed allegations of sexual assault.

The Missouri Democrat made her announcement after a committee vote on Kavanaugh’s nomination was postponed in the face of allegations he sexually assaulted a peer as a high school student more than three decades ago.

However, McCaskill cited Kavanaugh’s judicial record rather than the controversy as the reason for her opposition, specifically zeroing in on the issue of campaign spending.

“He has revealed his bias against limits on campaign donations, which places him completely out of the mainstream of this nation,” McCaskill said in a statement released Wednesday evening.

“Going even further, Judge Kavanaugh will give free reign to anonymous donors and foreign governments through their citizens to spend money to interfere and influence our elections with so-called ‘issue ads.’ These ‘issue ads’ are now flooding the airways in this nation to directly influence election outcomes, drowning the concept of individuals having the strongest voice in our democracy.”

McCaskill’s announcement comes the same week that President Donald Trump is scheduled to hold a rally for her GOP opponent, Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley, in Springfield.

Hawley has sought to make the Supreme Court the centerpiece of his campaign since Justice Anthony Kennedy announced his retirement in June.

“Nobody is surprised,” Hawley said in a statement Wednesday night.

McCaskill, who is running for re-election in a state Trump won by double digits, opposed Trump’s previous nominee to the court, Justice Neil Gorsuch. In the months leading up to her announcement, McCaskill has faced pressure from both sides of the aisle to take a firm stance on Kavanaugh, who is expected to move the court to the right if he is confirmed.

CREDO, a national progressive group, told McClatchy earlier this month that the only way to pressure GOP moderate Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska to vote against Kavanaugh would be if McCaskill and other red state Democrats took a strong stance against his confirmation.

Chris Nuelle, a spokesman for the Missouri Republican Party, blasted McCaskill’s decision to oppose the judge’s nomination as “a complete slap in the face of Missourians.”

In a letter that became public this week, Christine Blasey Ford, a professor at Palo Alto University in California, accused Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her 36 years ago when they were both high school students. Kavanaugh has denied the allegations, which now cloud his nomination.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, has set a hearing for Monday, but whether Ford will agree to testify remains in doubt. Ford’s attorneys and Democrats want the FBI to investigate the allegations before a hearing takes place.

Hawley told radio host Hugh Hewitt Wednesday that the Senate should proceed with Kavanaugh’s nomination if Ford does not show up to testify.

McCaskill, who spent years advocating for laws to combat sexual assault, called the sexual assault allegations against Kavanaugh troubling, but stressed that her decision hinged on his “allegiance to the position that unlimited donations and dark anonymous money, from even foreign interests, should be allowed to swamp the voices of individuals.”

Robynn Kuhlmann, a political scientist at the University of Central Missouri, said in an email that McCaskill’s decision to frame her opposition around the issue of dark money “offers a middle ground for the basis of her ‘no’ vote. She’s able to avoid the partisan fray of Kavanaugh’s highly charged nomination process over the issue of abortion as well as the allegations of sexual assault.”

The dark money explanation also follows a sparring session between McCaskill and Hawley at last week’s debate in St. Louis about the issue of political spending.

Both candidates have benefited from a flood of outside spending in the race that could decide control of the U.S. Senate. Independent political groups have spent more than $32 million on the race, a total nearly double the amount spent by the candidates themselves, according to an analysis of FEC records by ProPublica.

Hawley has accused McCaskill of hypocrisy on the issue, accusing her of skirting the laws that forbid coordination between campaigns and outside expenditure groups by posting material to her campaign website that is later regurgitated in campaign ads.

Footage and talking points posted to McCaskill’s website have repeatedly ended up in ads paid for by outside groups. Last week, Majority Forward, a group with ties to Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, launched a new ad campaign attacking Hawley for climbing the political ladder in nearly identical terms to material posted to McCaskill’s website four days earlier.

“There’s been gobs of money pouring into this race… Sen. McCaskill has been for months now trying to signal to Chuck Schumer what ads to run, when to run them,” Hawley said. “It violates the spirit of campaign finance laws. It may well violate the law as well.”

McCaskill fired back by noting that unlike Hawley she supports reversing the 2010 Citizens United decision, which opened the door to unlimited spending by corporations and unions. She has also supported legislation for greater disclosure on campaign spending by independent groups.

“I’m endorsed by End Citizens United. Josh Hawley is endorsed by Citizens United… I’ve said over and over again ignore every commercial if you can’t figure out who paid for it. I don’t care if it’s for me or against me. They’re terrible,” McCaskill said.

Brendan Fischer, director of federal reform for the Campaign Legal Center, said it’s a common practice for campaigns to post material to their websites that later ends up in ads paid for by outside groups.

“You’ve seen candidates from both sides of the aisle exploiting what’s called the publicly available information loophole,” Fischer said.

He said it would be difficult to craft a rule to prevent outside groups from using messaging that aligns with the campaigns they’re supporting.

“I would presume that Claire McCaskill’s campaign knows what they’re doing, how this information will be used and which super PACs will make use of it,” he said.