An Alabama special election with enormous import for the closely divided US Senate has been thrown into chaos, as Republican nominee Roy Moore faces allegations of sexual misconduct — and the GOP grapples with how to respond.
Before last week, Roy Moore, a former chief justice of the state Supreme Court, was best known for his history of fringe views, religious extremism, and refusal to obey federal court orders. But he managed to defeat an establishment favorite in his party’s primary for the seat despite, or perhaps because of, all that.
But on Thursday, the Washington Post’s Stephanie McCrummen, Beth Reinhard, and Alice Crites added scandal to the mix by publishing a story in which an Alabama woman alleged on the record that when she was 14 years old, in the late 1970s, Moore initiated a sexual encounter with her. Three other women also told the Post that Moore pursued them romantically in the same period, when Moore was in his early 30s and they were between 16 and 18. (The legal age of consent in Alabama is 16.)
Moore has denied ever dating a 14-year-old and generally called the Post story “false,” but in an appearance on Sean Hannity radio’s show Friday, he “didn’t dispute” that he used to date girls as young as 16, admitting that he “dated a lot of young ladies.”
This doesn’t appear to be the end of things — attorney Gloria Allred has said that on Monday, a new accuser will allege sexual assault from Moore when she was underage. But since some ballots in Alabama have already been printed, it appears that Republicans are stuck with Moore as their candidate in the December 12 election.
All this is taking place within the broader context of two larger political battles. The first is the GOP’s own internal civil war, since Moore has become associated with a faction of outsider challengers backed by former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, who seeks to depose Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
Second, there’s the battle for control over the closely divided US Senate, which Republicans currently control by a 52-48 margin. Despite Democrats’ hopes of a wave in the 2018 midterms, it’s long been difficult to see how they’d manage to gain the three Senate seats they need to take control, because the map of seats that happen to be up next year is overwhelmingly advantageous for the GOP. But the Alabama seat could change that math, and recent polling has looked promising for the Democratic nominee, Doug Jones.
So though some Republicans are outright condemning Moore and calling on him to step aside, others have tempered their criticism somewhat for fear of losing his seat. Meanwhile, some elements of the right — most notably Bannon’s far-right website Breitbart — are outright defending Moore by attempting to discredit the allegations. And many Alabama voters may well believe them.
Who is Roy Moore?
Moore served as a prosecutor and state court judge in Alabama in the 1980s and ’90s, but he first gained national fame after being elected chief justice of Alabama’s Supreme Court in 2000 — because he installed a large monument to the Ten Commandments in the Supreme Court building, refused to remove it despite federal court orders, and was removed from office in 2003.
Rather than ignominiously ending Moore’s judicial career, the controversy made him a sort of folk hero among many evangelical activists in the state. And since the chief justice position in Alabama is an elected one, that proved very useful to him. In 2012, he ran for his old job again and won it back. He then refused to enforce the US Supreme Court’s decision legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide, was suspended from the bench again, and chose to resign earlier this year.
Moore then set his sights on the US Senate seat that had, until this year, been filled by Jeff Sessions. After Sessions’s confirmation as attorney general, Alabama’s then-governor, Robert Bentley, filled the seat with an appointee who was well-liked by the GOP establishment — Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange. But Bentley was embroiled in scandal at the time, and questions soon arose about whether there was anything untoward in his appointment of Strange, who was supposed to be investigating him.
Moore correctly perceived that Strange was vulnerable to a primary challenge, and that his own preexisting support base among evangelical activists could help propel him to victory. He led polls throughout, but eventually got an added assist from Steve Bannon, who endorsed him as part of a broader effort to unseat establishment-friendly GOP incumbents.
Republican leaders like Mitch McConnell tried to defeat Moore — McConnell feared he would be a loose cannon who would make it even more difficult to keep the GOP united in the closely divided chamber — and even President Donald Trump endorsed Strange. But it made no matter — Moore won the nomination in a September runoff.
Despite his history of extremist views — he once said Muslims should not be allowed to serve in Congress, once called being gay “detestable,” flagrantly disobeyed federal court orders while chief justice, and just this year asserted to a Vox reporter that some American communities in the Midwest lived under sharia law — he then seemed set to win a relatively easy victory against the Democratic nominee this December.
What, exactly, is being alleged about Roy Moore?
After receiving a tip that Moore was believed to have pursued relationships with teenage girls in the past, a team of Washington Post reporters were referred to four women, and eventually convinced them to come forward with their stories.
First, there’s the account of Leigh Corfman, which is the most troubling because of her age and the conduct at issue. Corfman was just 14 years old in 1979 when she says the 32-year-old Moore approached her at the courthouse and asked for her phone number. She says that Moore saw her twice in following days, kissing her in one encounter, and also undressing her, touching her body, and having him touch him over his underwear in the second. “I wanted it over with — I wanted out,” she told the Post she remembered thinking.
The three other women quoted in the Post story were above the age of consent when Moore pursued them and say nothing nonconsensual occurred, but the age discrepancy is still striking:
- Debbie Wesson Gibson was 17, she says, when Moore spoke to a high school class of hers and asked her out, leading to several dates on which they kissed.
- Gloria Thacker Deason was 18 when, she says, she began dating Moore on and off for several months. On the dates, she says they kissed and Moore sometimes provided her alcohol even though she was under Alabama’s drinking age of 19.
- Wendy Miller says she was 16 when Moore approached her at the mall and asked her to date him, but her mother prohibited it.
Additionally, Teresa Jones, a former prosecutor who worked with Moore in the 1980s, told CNN on Saturday that “it was common knowledge that Roy dated high school girls,” and that “everyone we knew thought it was weird.” She added: “We wondered why someone his age would hang out at high school football games and the mall.”
Finally, attorney Gloria Allred has said that on Monday afternoon, she will hold a press conference in which a new accuser will come forward to allege that Moore sexually assaulted her while she was a minor in Alabama.
Moore has said the claim that he was with “a minor child” was “false and untrue” and that he never had contact with Leigh Corfman. He’s also said he wouldn’t have provided alcohol to someone underage, and has threatened to sue the Washington Post.
However, he’s not vigorously disputing that he has a history of dating teenagers while he was in his early 30s, before his 1985 marriage — in an appearance on Sean Hannity’s radio show Friday he said he “didn’t dispute” that claim, and said he “dated a lot of young ladies” during that period. He also said he recognized the names of two of the women in the Post’s story and didn’t clearly deny dating them.
How is the Republican Party responding?
Since the publication of the Post’s story, many leading national Republicans have argued that Moore should step aside from the special election — but he’s said he has no intention of doing so.
Initially, several in the GOP caveated this with the qualifier that Moore should leave the race “if” the allegations were “true” — which seemed to many to dodge the issue. However, in recent days more have dropped the qualifier, and on Monday morning, Majority Leader McConnell issued a statement flat out saying Moore “should step aside,” and said he believed the allegations.
The problem for the GOP is that even though the election is still a month away, it would still be too late to remove Moore from the ballot even if he voluntarily chose to step aside. That’s because some ballots in Alabama have already been printed and sent out. (Over the weekend, anonymous Republicans floated the idea of postponing the special election, but a spokesperson for Alabama’s Republican Gov. Kay Ivey then said she is “not considering and has no plans to” do that.)
In any case, Moore has insisted he’s going nowhere, as recently as Monday afternoon:
With Moore apparently fated to remain on the ballot, some Republicans have instead suggested throwing their support behind a write-in candidate — McConnell said Monday that he’d explore that option. However, no firm effort to do so has yet emerged, and it would be very difficult for a write-in challenger to actually win if Moore stays in.
Furthermore, many elements of the right are not disavowing Moore. These include some Alabama Republican officials who have generally tried to excuse the allegations, debunk them as “fake news,” or portray them as part of an establishment plot to destroy him. (The state auditor claimed the biblical relationship between Joseph and Mary somehow justified Moore’s conduct, while the chair of the Marion County GOP said, “It was 40 years ago.”)
Meanwhile, Bannon has also said he’s “standing with Moore,” and according to Axios, he sent two Breitbart reporters to Alabama specifically to try to discredit the Post’s report and the women who have come forward. That’s because Bannon’s personal prestige and influence in the GOP are now bound up in Moore’s success — he’s been trying to make Moore the centerpiece of his effort to back primary challengers to Republican incumbents across the country.
Indeed, McConnell allies are already gleefully blaming Bannon for the new scandal. (“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,” his former aide Josh Holmes told the New York Times.) This argument is a bit of a stretch, as were Bannon’s own attempts to take credit for Moore’s victory — he led polls well before Bannon got involved in the race. But McConnell and others are hoping a Moore flameout could take the wind out of Bannon’s plan to primary most of the Republican senators on the ballot next year.
Could Democrats actually win this seat?
Democrats have long looked at the 2018 Senate map with utter dread. With just eight Republican-held seats on the ballot compared to 25 Democrat-held seats, the playing field seems overwhelmingly to advantage the GOP — especially because many of those Democratic seats were in states Trump won.
Even assuming every Democrat incumbent survived, it was difficult to see how the party would pick up the three GOP-held seats it would need to regain control. Sen. Dean Heller’s seat in Nevada was one promising opportunity, and the seat held by retiring Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona is another. But a third realistic opportunity remained elusive.
Alabama is such a deeply conservative state that when the special election for Sessions’s Senate seat was scheduled earlier this year, few thought the race could end up being at all competitive. Trump won the state by 28 points, after all, and Republicans have dominated statewide for years. Despite Moore’s history of extremist views, it would take a perfect storm to give Democrats a significant chance of victory.
That perfect storm may have now arrived — and Doug Jones hopes to take advantage of it.
Jones served as US attorney for the Northern District of Alabama back during Bill Clinton’s presidency. During that time, he prosecuted two Ku Klux Klan members for murdering four girls in the 1963 Birmingham church bombing. He also prosecuted domestic terrorist Eric Rudolph, who perpetrated a series of bombings in the US, including at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.
As might be expected, Jones is running a centrist campaign focused on “kitchen table issues” like jobs, health care, and education, and asserting that he can work with Republicans. He’s been fundraising relatively strongly, and polls have shown him reasonably competitive with Moore — he’s been behind in most, but has occasionally tied in polls and even led in a recent one conducted since the allegations.
Still, it remains entirely possible that deeply conservative Alabama voters will back Moore in spite of everything. A recent poll even showed that 29 percent of the state’s voters say the allegations make them more likely to vote for Moore. The best way to translate that, as Ezra Klein argues, is probably just as a statement that they don’t believe the accusers, perhaps dismissing their stories as mere “fake news.” (And after all, it’s only been a year since the US elected President Trump even though he was facing a series of sexual assault allegations.)
Politically, the best-case, realistic scenario for Democrats is probably that Moore stays in the race and the national GOP throws its support behind a write-in candidate. That would split the Republican vote and give Jones a very real shot at winning. If he does, he would hold the Alabama seat through 2020 — and Democrats’ chances for retaking the Senate in 2018 could sharply improve.
If control of the Senate does flip, the consequences for the Trump administration and the country as a whole would be enormous. For one, Trump wouldn’t be able to confirm any nominees — including for the Supreme Court — without some Democratic support. So the outcome of this race could resonate for decades to come.