Beverly Young Nelson became the fifth woman to accuse Alabama Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore of pursuing sexual relations with teenagers decades ago, adding fuel to a spiraling scandal. Nelson said she only had the courage to speak out after four other women — including one who was 14 at the time — came forward in the Washington Post last Thursday.
The scandal has ignited the first wave of GOP senators to decisively back away from Moore — Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said on Monday that he believed the women and that Moore should withdraw from the race. Additional Republican lawmakers followed suit.
McConnell reiterated his call for Moore to quit the race Tuesday. “He’s obviously not fit to be in the United States Senate,” he said. “And we’ve looked at all the options to try to prevent that from happening.”
So what, exactly, are those options? With Moore so far refusing to formally withdraw from the race, the Republican establishment has a few options before the special election on December 12. It’s already too late to remove Moore’s name from the ballot — the deadline passed October 11.
Option 1: Voters write in Luther Strange
McConnell said Monday offering up a write-in candidate was “an option we’re looking at.” He did not say whether that option would be Luther Strange, who lost to Moore in the GOP primary.
The odds of Strange, or anyone else, winning a write-in campaign weeks away from the election are … not great. But it’s not impossible. In 2010, Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) won her senatorial campaign as a write-in, after a Tea Party favorite defeated her in the GOP primary. It was the first write-in victory since the 1950s, and Murkowski is reportedly encouraging Luther Strange to give it a go — though “Big Luther” himself has said it’s “highly unlikely.”
“I made my case during the election,” Strange said. “Now it’s really going to be up to people in our state to sort this out.”
Option 2: Jeff Sessions takes Jeff Sessions’s seat
“Jeff Sessions would be an ideal write-in candidate,” Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) said Monday. Shelby’s suggestion that his old colleague became a write-in candidate for his own seat has been percolating semi-seriously around Washington since the Moore allegations escalated.
According to the New York Times, McConnell and Vice President Mike Pence discussed the possibility of throwing Sessions into the ring during a Monday phone call.
This Sessions switcharoo would ostensibly solve two problems: Moore, and President Trump’s dissatisfaction with Sessions. The attorney general has provoked Trump’s ire for recusing himself from the Russia probe, and questions about his own contacts with the Russian ambassador during the Trump campaign have dogged his tenure.
If the GOP could send Sessions back to Alabama, they’d get a loyal vote — one potentially much more dependable than the anti-establishment Moore. And Trump might be able to install a more pliable attorney general. Lawmakers grilled Sessions at a hearing on Capitol Hill on Tuesday; how his performance turns out might spark more Alabama rumors, or quell them for good.
But it’s unclear whether Sessions himself would go for this plot. Department of Justice spokesperson Sarah Isgur Flores told the Weekly Standard that the AG isn’t considering any such appointment. A source close to Sessions told ABC News called the idea “wishful thinking.”
Sessions commented on the Moore allegations briefly during that marathon hearing in front of the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday. He said he had “no reason to doubt” the women who came forward to accuse Moore, and when asked his opinion on whether Moore should be seated, he said he was avoiding any involvement in the Alabama Senate campaign, based on advice from ethics officials in the Justice Department. “They advised me that the attorney general should not be involved in this campaign,” he said. “I have steadfastly adhered to that view, and I think I should continue to do so.”
Option 3: Roy Moore gets elected — and the Senate expels him
Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO), the chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said on Monday, “If [Moore] refuses to withdraw and wins, the Senate should vote to expel him.”
This maneuver has not been attempted in recent history — not since the Civil War, in fact. Of the 15 senators who have ever been expelled in the body’s history, all but one were kicked out because of their support for the Confederacy.
Since then, the Senate has considered expulsion for two senators — John Ensign of Nevada and Bob Packwood of Oregon — for alleged sexual misconduct, but both resigned before such a vote could be taken.
But Moore, if elected, would be a unique case. The allegations date back decades and occurred before his possible ascension to the Senate. What’s more, Alabama voters, by this point, are likely fully aware of the accusations that he molested minors. Josh Chafetz of Cornell Law explained to the Washington Post that this potentially violates an “unwritten” rule within the Senate, which is essentially that the body won’t take action if the transgressions are public at the time of the election. Otherwise the whole situation might come off as a tad undemocratic — the swampy Senate ignoring the people’s will.
This is especially relevant given the current anti-establishment fervor permeating the political climate. It helped Moore nab the GOP ticket in the first place. And the former judge has already teed up this line of attack:
Option 4: the Alabama governor or state party officials intervene
Moore’s name will stay on the ballot for December 12 — but Alabama’s Republican governor, Kay Ivey, could postpone the election. So far, she has publicly resisted any rescheduling pleas. “Governor Ivey is not considering and has no plans to move the special election for U.S. Senate,” a spokesperson emailed the Times over the weekend.
On Friday, a different report in the Times suggested that Ivey might consider moving the special election (she already did it once, after her predecessor stepped down amid scandal), but she was waiting on a signal of support from the White House. The Washington Post’s Robert Costa said Ivey had reportedly been in touch with the administration, but everyone is waiting on Trump.
Rescheduling might also be knotty, Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill told AL.com, because people may have started voting via absentee ballot as of October 18.
The state GOP could also remove Moore’s name from the Republican ticket with a formal letter — essentially leaving Moore on the ballot, but party-less. But according to AL.com, state GOP Chair Terry Lathan said that right now, the idea of an intervention against Moore is “far-fetched.”
Option 5: Moore withdraws
This is the best-case scenario for McConnell and the Senate, and one that doesn’t seem very likely at this point. Moore has dug in and has given no sign he’s willing to drop out.
If he fulfills McConnell’s dreams, his name would likely still appear on the December 12 ballot no matter what. Merrill told AL.com that if Moore won, the results would be nullified, opening the way to another special election or appointment. The second-place winner would not win. If a write-in candidate or the Democratic candidate got the most votes, that person would head to the Senate.
Option 6: A Democrat (gasp!) wins the Alabama special election
The polls are tightening. Democratic candidate Doug Jones, a former federal prosecutor, is closing in on Moore’s lead, according to flash polls taken after the Post’s allegations first surfaced. According to Bloomberg, a Sunday poll by JMC Analytics and Polling had Jones up 46 percent to Moore’s 42 percent, with 9 percent undecided and the margin of error at 4.1 percent.
Another poll, also conducted after the allegations emerged, had Jones tailing Moore by about 10 percentage points — which, all things considered, isn’t too shabby for an Alabama Democrat post-partisan realignment. (Southern Democrats used to be a vestige of post-Civil War America, but since the civil rights movement, they have been on the way out.)
Still, the path for Jones — who’s kept a low profile so far — will be tough. According to a FiveThirtyEight analysis, he has to hope for enthusiasm for Moore to diminish in rural, predominately white counties, tamping down turnout. Jones also needs to win almost all the state’s black voters and overperform in urban counties such as Birmingham. It’s quite the trifecta.
But there is another long-shot chance that Jones might win: if Republicans attempted a write-in campaign and Moore’s name remained on the ballot. The GOP could end up splitting the vote — effectively delivering Doug Jones to the Senate and slicing the Senate majority to 51.