A GOP loss in the Alabama Senate race would be a gift to Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer – and, some Republicans say, a badly needed wake-up call for a divided party panicked over a candidate accused of sexual misconduct with a child.
“Republicans have been willing to overlook a lot of things, but there’s something about losing an election that seems to focus the mind,” said Charlie Sykes, a veteran conservative commentator and former Wisconsin talk radio show host.
Roy Moore, the GOP’s Senate nominee in Alabama, has been accused of multiple instances of sexual misconduct with teenage girls—including a 14-year-old, as well as sexual assault of a 16-year-old—in incidents dating back decades. The first instances were reported by the Washington Post and on Monday, another graphic, on-the-record account from another woman emerged.
Moore has denied the allegations, but faces mounting pressure to get out of the race.
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National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Cory Gardner warned on Monday: “If he refuses to withdraw and wins, the Senate should vote to expel him, because he does not meet the ethical and moral requirements of the United States Senate.”
GOP leaders are exploring write-in campaign options and some are talking about whether the special election date could be moved. A spokesman for the governor of Alabama didn’t respond when asked Monday afternoon whether the latter option was on the table.
“I don't want Republicans to lose the seat. I want Republicans to get it together and give Alabama voters a better option. If they can't, they deserve to lose,” said Amanda Carpenter, a conservative commentator and former communications director for Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas.
To Republicans who have long had qualms about President Donald Trump—and the GOP base’s inclination to gloss over his most controversial comments, actions and elements of his personal history—the Moore episode offers the party a new opportunity to draw lines in the sand and prove that there are limits to supporting a candidate just because he or she is not a Democrat.
“What we saw in 2016 and have continued to see is that winning, retaining power, trumps principle,” said Mindy Finn, who made a career as a veteran Republican strategist but ran as part of an independent ticket opposed to President Donald Trump last November. “I believe the only thing that will wake them up to the importance of principle and effective governance is losses by the worst actors within the Republican tent. It would start with Roy Moore.”
But Moore’s allies insist that he is going to stay in—and win. In an interview Monday, Moore’s close friend, Dean Young, vowed that the candidate “is not stepping down,” and laughed when asked for a response to Gardner’s statement.
“Tell everybody out there in the world who cares about the way our country is supposed to run, Judge Moore is not stepping down, Judge Moore will win on Dec. 12, Judge Moore is going to Washington,” said Young, who said that the accusations are “not true.” “We’ll see what this banana republic bunch do, but just know, the world is going to be watching them.”
As more allegations emerged Monday, Republican strategists opposed to Moore conceded that he remains in a competitive position in the deep-red state as of now, should he stay in.
But if Moore loses, some strategists say, that would send a powerful message to a party that has forgiven other charged moments, including Trump’s bragging, caught on tape and unearthed during the presidential campaign, about sexual harassment (though the White House also said last week that if the allegations against Moore are true, he should step aside).
“There should have been about two or three dozen wake-up calls for Republicans in the Trump era,” said Peter Wehner, who served in the last three Republican administrations but is a Trump critic. “Most of those wake-up calls have been issued by Donald Trump himself. I’m not sure what it’s going to take for Republicans to understand that they’ve got to distance themselves from some pretty ugly elements that are staining the party. Maybe this would be one.”
But, he added, “Losing will begin to get the attention of Republican lawmakers.”
Moore is running against Doug Jones, a former U.S. attorney who prosecuted members of the Ku Klux Klan involved in the 1963 Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing.
The idea that a competitive race is emerging in Alabama—until recently, an unthinkable notion—comes at a particularly sensitive time for Republicans, who last week took a drubbing from Virginia to Pennsylvania to Washington state in a series of state and local elections, doing especially badly in suburban territory.
“The combination of Virginia and Alabama, and the recognition that younger college-educated suburban and urban voters are being turned off by the Republican Party in its current manifestation—that will be a wake-up call to those who want to see the party be a strong winning party,” Finn said. But as for Alabama, she acknowledged, “It’s contingent on him losing or the election being very close.”
A Moore win is a nightmare scenario for a Republican Party concerned with broadening its base, strategists say—his presence in the Senate would be a constant drag on that effort. GOP lawmakers recognize that, and rebukes of the candidate have come from the most senior members of party leadership.
But Republican and conservative strategists who oppose Moore note that just because Senate Republican officials have called on Moore to step aside doesn’t guarantee voters will feel the same way. Some corners of right-wing conservative media, which has enormous influence over the GOP base, have remained firmly aligned with the candidate.
“The party put party over everything else in ,” said conservative strategist Brendan Steinhauser, often a critic of Trump and Moore. “It came down to a binary choice between Trump and Hillary Clinton…this is the next level of that, with Roy Moore. It’s interesting to see how quickly people throughout the party disowned him, but I still think there’s a very, very good shot he stays on and he wins…I think the majority opinion among Republican voters is, they are so mad at Democrats, whoever we put up is better than a Democrat, no matter the character or competency.”
Young agrees on that assessment of Moore’s chances. After all, Moore ran in a hard-fought primary contest earlier this fall on a strongly anti-Washington message, and criticism from lawmakers now, Young suggested, only fuels that narrative.
“Nobody in Alabama cares what [Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell thinks, what [South Carolina Sen.] Lindsey Graham thinks,” he said. “The whole world is watching as the U.S. Constitution is being ripped to shreds because they don’t want Judge Moore because he believes in God—that’s the Christian God—and he believes in the Constitution.”
Moore’s Republican critics are aware of the disconnect between lawmakers’ criticisms from D.C. and how activists on the ground are responding—which was the case during the presidential election as well. This time around, the outpouring of pushback to Moore is significant, they say. And Sykes said that a Moore loss would be a “shock to the central nervous system of the Republican Party, no question about it.”
But he is skeptical that even potential loss that would be enough to force a full course correction for the GOP’s sharply partisan and tribal attitudes in the Trump era, expecting it to instead ignite even more divisions in the party.
“It’s definitely going to be a wake-up call,” he said. “But this is a party that has had numerous wake-up calls. They’ve consistently hit the snooze button. It may be too late.”