The Republican Party this week sustained losses in Virginia, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Washington state — but none of that compares to the political disaster unfolding for the GOP in deep-red Alabama.
The Washington Post on Thursday published on-the-record allegations against Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore, who is being accused of sexual misconduct with young women and girls decades ago. Within hours, top Republicans called on Moore to step down if the accusations are true — even though it’s too late to recruit a new Republican candidate to the Alabama ballot, just weeks out from a special Senate election that should have been an easy Republican hold, but now looks more complicated.
"It's obviously a very difficult situation without easy answers as long as Roy Moore stays in the race," said Doug Heye, a veteran Republican strategist. "Mitch McConnell or [National Republican Senatorial Committee Chair] Cory Gardner or whomever can't actually remove him. The fact that they are out there as fast as they are shows how serious they take it, but this is a matter of Alabama election law and Roy Moore's conscience.
"It's more than a headache," he added.
Republican leaders are now choosing between withdrawing their support for Moore — and possibly endangering a Senate seat — and supporting a candidate who, if elected, could damage the GOP’s reputation more broadly. The party holds only a slim majority in the upper chamber, at 52 seats, and a loss in Alabama — however unlikely — could jeopardize its hold on the majority in the 2018 midterm elections.
Adding to the pressure: Moore already has a well-documented history of incendiary rhetoric that includes criticizing LGBTQ people and questioning whether Muslims should serve in public office.
It's a similar situation to the one Republicans faced in 2012, when GOP Senate nominee Todd Akin of Missouri questioned whether women who were raped could become pregnant. At the time, the party distanced itself from Akin, worried that his comments would hurt GOP candidates up and down the ballot across the country.
And now, both McConnell, the majority leader, and Gardner, among a host of other senators, have called on Moore to drop out "if the allegations are true," as chatter mounts on Capitol Hill about the possibilities and limitations of a write-in campaign. Significantly, Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby also —conditionally — pushed Moore to step aside.
“If that’s true, he wouldn’t belong in the Senate,” said Shelby, who supported Moore's opponent, Sen. Luther Strange, in the contentious Senate primary earlier this year.
Moore is running against Doug Jones, the Democratic nominee for Senate who — before Thursday — was universally considered a longshot to win the race.
Moore strenuously denies the allegations, and in a statement, his campaign chairman, Bill Armistead, said that “this garbage is the very definition of fake news and intentional defamation.”
But some Democratic groups immediately jumped on the news, saying that Moore “should be serving in prison, not in the Senate” and blaming Republican leaders for supporting his candidacy.
"Republicans own Roy Moore, his toxic beliefs, and his history of preying on underage women,” said Shripal Shah, a top official at the Democratic outside group American Bridge. “Voters are going to hold the GOP accountable for propping up such a dangerous individual.”
Republicans leaders in the Senate had previously endorsed Moore following the primary. But even before the allegations surfaced, Moore had challenges with his own party as well.
He made Christian morality central to his political career, forcefully arguing that Biblical principles were necessary to keep America strong. His beliefs led him to being removed from the Alabama Supreme Court twice, once for refusing to remove a statue of the Ten Commandments from court grounds in 2003 and a second time for refusing to comply with the United States Supreme Court’s decision in 2015 to legalize gay marriage.
His reputation as a conservative hardliner endears him to some deeply religious voters but turns off more mainstream, business-oriented Republicans.
In Washington, Republicans are closely watching the reaction from the Alabama delegation, aware that condemnations from D.C. will only go so far in moving the dial in that deeply conservative state. After all, Moore won the primary runoff by running hard against Washington, slamming McConnell at every turn.
"No one in Alabama cares what people in D.C. think," said a senior Republican strategist with deep experience in Senate races. "What's really going to matter is what people in Alabama do. If the governor, Sen. Shelby, the congressional delegation stick by him, no one is going to care what D.C. thinks. This really is in the hands of Alabama, the party down there, the delegation and the governor."
In Alabama and Washington, local officials and party strategists were often reluctant to go on record as the sensitive story developed. But one Alabama Republican county chair, who requested anonymity to speak candidly, said the fresh controversies surrounding Moore could push the race deeper into play for Democrats, even though most polls showed Moore with a comfortable lead.
"It was already going to be difficult for the Republican Party because of the history with Roy Moore being removed from the bench twice, that was a hurdle to overcome," this Republican said. "This is just going to be additional negative publicity. I think it could have an effect on the outcome of the campaign."
An official with the Alabama secretary of state’s office said Thursday it's too late to remove Moore's name from the ballot for next month's election. But his candidacy can still be withdrawn, whether through Moore's own decision or by action from the Alabama Republican Party. If his candidacy is withdrawn, but his candidacy still receives the most votes, the election would be declared null and void, according to the Alabama official.
Alabama is deeply conservative, and the idea of even a competitive Senate race there is unfathomable to many political observers — much less a scenario in which a Democrat actually won.
Jones, the former U.S. attorney for the northern district of Alabama, was well-respected by Democratic officials in Washington, and — as the prosecutor who convicted two members of the Ku Klux Klan in 1998 for the bombing of an African-American church in the early 1960s — had strong connections to the state’s black community.
But Jones has still trailed in every public poll of the race, and Democratic strategists quietly downplayed his chances to win in the deeply conservative state. Donald Trump won Alabama by nearly 30 points in 2016, and the state’s voters haven’t elected a Democratic candidate to the US Senate or governor’s seat this century.
Now, however, strategists from both parties give Jones at least an outside chance.
Even before the Washington Post story broke, the Democrat received a boost Thursday when he received the endorsement of Daily Kos, a liberal blog with a demonstrated record of raising big money for its chosen candidates.
And some Republicans on the ground said that they already expected little enthusiasm for Moore among more mainstream Republicans — and that the latest developments may depress turnout further.
"The continuous negative things that are associated with his service as Supreme Court justice and now, maybe, of criminal allegations, definitely could make it easier for the Democrat to come in and win," the county chair said.
One Democratic strategist involved in Senate races, granted anonymity to speak candidly, said national Democrats are "monitoring the race." But the source cautioned against expecting involvement from national groups, saying the help from Washington could backfire.
"The key thing to remember though is that the national Democratic brand in Alabama ain’t all that great," the strategist said. "It’s possible that the best thing we have to offer is to let him run his race."
Lesley Clark and Brian Murphy contributed to this report.