This article has been updated since it was first published to include new information about the future of the race.
Revelations today that four women have accused former state Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore, the GOP in the special election to replace Attorney General Jeff Sessions, of sexual harassment in a series of events that occurred more than 30 years ago has put this race into limbo. With the December 12 special election just 32 days away, GOP strategists are scrambling to figure out their options.
It is too late to replace Moore on the ballot, and he has vowed not to exit the race over allegations he believes are fabricated. The question is whether Republicans have any other viable options.
As the downfall of Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein and "Game Change" author Mark Halperin proved, there is safety -- and credibility -- in numbers. It is easy to deflect allegations by one woman, but it's a lot more difficult to dismiss claims by four women who are willing to go on the record to tell their stories in vivid detail. This is an even thornier issue for Moore, who has held himself up as a pillar of moral virtue in every sense. It is also worth remembering that GOP Gov. Robert Bentley resigned from office this past April after admitting to an extra-marital affair.
Moore has denied the charges, telling The Washington Post, "These allegations are completely false and are a desperate political attack by the National Democrat Party and The Washington Post on this campaign.” Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who owns The Washington Post, is a frequent target for criticism by President Trump and his supporters.
It seems that the difference in public attitudes about allegations of sexual misconduct of politicians and of those against people in entertainment or journalism is that the politician has a base of very committed supporters who are increasingly unwilling believe anything negative about their candidate, regardless of the evidence presented. As a result, Moore has no shortage of defenders. State Auditor Jim Ziegler is among the most prominent. In an interview with the Washington Examiner, he dismissed the allegations, noting that the incidents are said to have occurred almost 40 years ago and that Moore was single at the time and that he “liked younger girls.” He went on to reference Christ, saying, “Also take Joseph and Mary. Mary was a teenager and Joseph was an adult carpenter. They became parents of Jesus.” A Republican activist and Moore supporter told The New York Times that the allegations were “totally contrived media garbage,” suggesting that Moore’s supporters won’t see it any other way. Another Alabama political insider noted that reports that Moore misused funds donated to his foundation fell on deaf ears and these allegations are likely to generate the same reaction.
Conservative news outlet Breitbart and former White House senior staffer Steve Bannon have also come to Moore’s defense. Bannon compared these allegations to the Access Hollywood tape that came out a month before last year’s election and featured then-candidate Trump talking about assaulting women. Bannon’s argument is that the tape didn’t hurt Trump and these allegations won’t hurt Moore.
Among Republican leaders in Alabama, only Gov. Kay Ivey has been critical, calling the allegations “deeply disturbing,” but reserving judgment until (or if) the charges are proven true. U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby said that Moore “… doesn’t belong in the Senate,” if the allegations are accurate.
Nearly every Senate Republican, including Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and NRSC Chairman Corey Gardner, as well as Vice President Mike Pence has taken a similar posture, saying that Moore should exit the race if the allegations are true. At this writing, only U.S. Sen. John McCain has called on Moore to exit the race immediately. Some GOP strategists are blaming Bannon for enabling Moore’s candidacy and thus helping to create the current crisis. Josh Holmes, a former senior aide to McConnell, told The New York Times, “This is what happens when you let reckless, incompetent idiots like Steve Bannon go out and recruit candidates who have absolutely no business running for the U.S. Senate.”
Amid the arguments and finger pointing, Republican strategists are trying to figure out how to deal with the situation. The reality is that these allegations aren’t going to be “proven” in the next 32 days. It is Moore’s word against those of his accusers. And, there is no way to actually remove Moore from the ballot, particularly since some absentee ballots have already been mailed. It is possible that a very credible candidate could mount a write-in campaign. And yes, appointed U.S. Sen. Luther Strange, who lost to Moore in the run-off in September, can run as a write-in since the state’s “sore loser” law does not apply to special elections. But, is a write-in campaign a realistic option with just a month left? When GOP U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska ran as a write-in in 2010, she had nearly four months to make her case. At the time GOP strategists were concerned that they wouldn’t have enough time.
Not surprisingly, the Alabama Secretary of State is not providing a lot of guidance on how various scenarios might play out. Over the next few days, there are a number of questions that need to be answered. These answers will provide something that resembles a roadmap for Republicans going forward. Here are a few of them.
- Will more women come forward?
- How do local newspapers and television stations handle the story? Do any of Moore’s accusers give interviews?
- Does law enforcement become involved? There is no statute of limitations in Alabama for sexual abuse crimes involving victims under the age of 16.
- Can another candidate mount an effective write-in campaign in a month?
- Would state and national Republicans endorse and provide financial support for a write-in candidate?
- What happens if Moore changes course and does withdraw? Are votes for him counted or discarded?
Assuming that Moore does stay in the race, Democrats' chances of scoring an upset can only improve, especially if the race essentially becomes a three-way battle between Democrat Doug Jones, Moore and one or more credible write-in candidates.
Since the run-off, Moore has been playing possum. Jones has had the television airwaves to himself. Interestingly enough, Moore went on the air today with a television ad that accusing former President Obama of destroying the military. Moore hasn't made many public appearances and has refused debate invitations. That "Rose Garden" strategy will no longer suffice since Moore will need to spend the next 32 days mounting a vigorous defense.
The rating won't change until (or if) some of the most critical questions are answered. At the very least, a sleepy special election has become a wild ride with very little upside for Republicans.
Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call