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The Republican Party’s Roy Moore catastrophe, explained

Moore is facing sexual assault allegations heading into an election with enormous national consequences.

Roy Moore.
Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call/Getty

An Alabama special election with enormous import for the closely divided US Senate remains a tight race, with the president of the United States openly backing a candidate accused of sexual misconduct as the rest of his party grapples with how to respond to the allegations against Roy Moore.

Voters headed to the polls Tuesday, December 12.

Until recently, 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. Still, he managed to defeat an establishment favorite in his party’s primary for the open Alabama Senate seat despite, or perhaps because of, all that.

But on November 9, 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 said 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 he was in his early 30s and they were between 16 and 18. (The legal age of consent in Alabama is 16.)

More women soon came forward to accuse Moore of pursuing them romantically while they were teenagers and he was in his 30s. Moore has denied ever dating a 14-year-old and generally called the Post story “false.” But he “didn’t dispute” that he used to date girls as young as 16, admitting that he “dated a lot of young ladies.”

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.

Polls in the weeks after the allegations against Moore broke looked very promising for the Democratic nominee, Doug Jones, but Moore began regaining his lead at the end of November. A Fox News poll released Monday has Jones up by 10 points, but most polls have Moore ahead. The Republican has a 2.2 percentage-point advantage in Real Clear Politics’ polling average. Still, a Democrat is within striking distance in deep-red Alabama.

Some Republicans have outright condemned Moore and called on him to step aside. Others have tempered their criticism somewhat for fear of losing his seat. And some elements of the right — most notably Bannon’s website Breitbart — are outright defending Moore by attempting to discredit the allegations.

So is President Trump. “Democrats refusal to give even one vote for massive Tax Cuts is why we need Republican Roy Moore to win in Alabama,” Trump tweeted Monday morning.

Who is Roy Moore?

Moore in 2004.
Tom Williams/Roll Call/Getty

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 then himself 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 falsely 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.

Moore — even as misconduct allegations swirl — has not stopped spewing controversial comments on the campaign trail. In an interview December 5 with a conservative talk show host Bryan Fischer on American Family Radio, Moore attacked philanthropist and Democratic donor George Soros, which some critics interpreted as anti-Semitic. “His agenda is sexual in nature, his agenda is liberal, and not what Americans need,” Moore said. “It’s not our American culture.”

Moore then implied Soros would end up in hell. “No matter how much money he’s got, he’s still going to the same place that people who don’t recognize God and morality and accept His salvation are going,” Moore said. “And that’s not a good place.”

And with the spotlight trained on Moore, reporters have dug up even more controversial comments. A Los Angeles Times article resurfaced last week that described a scene from a Moore rally in September. A black attendee asked the candidate the meaning of “Make American Great Again.”

Moore responded that the country had corrected a lot of its problems, but continued: “I think it was great at the time when families were united — even though we had slavery. They cared for one another. People were strong in the families. Our families were strong. Our country had a direction.”

Andrew Kaczynski of CNN reported on another bizarre 2011 radio interview with two hosts who embrace 9/11 conspiracy theories. One of the hosts suggested that a Constitutional amendment should be added to get rid of all the amendments after 10th amendment. Moore replied: “That would eliminate many problems. You know people don't understand how some of these amendments have completely tried to wreck the form of government that our forefathers intended.”

Among the amendments enshrined after the Bill of Rights: the 13th amendment abolishing slavery, and the 19th amendment granting women the right to vote.

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 particularly 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 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. In a follow-up with the Post, published December 4, Gibson shared details of their relationship, which she says was consensual and something she “wore like a badge of honor” at the time. Moore, who was 34 at the time, wrote her a note in her senior-year scrapbook, which Wesson Gibson saved: “Happy graduation Debbie. I wanted to give you this card myself. I know that you’ll be a success in anything you do. Roy.”
  • 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 with 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 November 11 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.”

On November 13, a new accuser, Beverly Young Nelson, came forward. She said that when she was 16 years old, Moore sexually assaulted her after offering her a ride home from the restaurant where she worked as a waitress. She read out an emotional prepared statement describing the alleged attack:

Mr. Moore reached over and began groping me, putting his hands on my breasts. I tried to open my car door to leave, but he reached over and locked it so I could not get out. I tried fighting him off, while yelling at him to stop, but instead of stopping he began squeezing my neck attempting to force my head onto his crotch. I continued to struggle. I was determined that I was not going to allow him to force me to have sex with him. I was terrified. He was also trying to pull my shirt off. I thought that he was going to rape me. I was twisting and struggling and begging him to stop. I had tears running down my face.

At some point he gave up. He then looked at me and said, “You are a child. I am the District Attorney of Etowah County. If you tell anyone about this, no one will believe you.”

On November 15, AL.com published a story from a woman, Tina Johnson, who says Moore groped her after a meeting in his law office in 1991 when she was 28. Johnson said Moore had been hired by her mother to handle a custody petition for her 12-year-old son, and though her mother also attended the meeting, Moore flirted with her through. As she got up to leave, Johnson said Moore groped her behind. "He didn't pinch it; he grabbed it," she said. One other woman, Kelly Harrison Thorp, told AL.com that Moore asked her out when she was 17 and he was in his 30s; she said she turned him down.

Two women also told the Washington Post that Moore repeatedly asked them out when they worked at the mall in the late ’70s. One, Gena Richardson — then a senior in high school — said after turning Moore down, she relented and went out with him. When she began to get out of the car after they saw a movie together, “he grabbed me and pulled me in and that’s when he kissed me.“ The second woman, Becky Gray, was 22 when Moore made his unwanted advances.

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, 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.

Moore changed his story during a Nov. 29 campaign event, denying that he knew any of the women. “Let me state once again: I do not know any of these women, did not date any of these women and have not engaged in any sexual misconduct with anyone,” Moore said.

The candidate and his campaign representatives have continued to attack the credibility of the women, including a claim that a message Moore had written in one of the accusers’ notebooks was a forgery. Moore’s supporters, in particular have seized on this idea with ferocity after Young Nelson admitted she added the date and location after Moore’s signature in the yearbook.

No other women have come forward since November 15, though Debbie Wesson Gibson shared her story in more detail to the Post on December 4. She said she did so because Moore attacked her integrity. “He called me a liar,” said Wesson Gibson, who told the Post she found the scrapbook message from Moore when rummaging through storage for her Christmas decorations. “Roy Moore made an egregious mistake to attack that one thing — my integrity.”

How is the Republican Party responding?

Since the publication of the Post’s story, many leading national Republicans have argued that Moore should step down from the special election — but he’s said he has no intention of doing so. His refusal to cede was eventually rewarded with an endorsement from President Trump. That unequivocal support likely helped push the Republication National Committee to support Moore again with a little more than a week until election day.

Initially, several in the GOP caveated this, saying Moore should leave the race “if” the allegations were “true” — which seemed to many to dodge the issue. Later, many prominent lawmakers dropped the qualifier. Majority Leader McConnell issued a statement on November 13 explicitly saying Moore “should step aside,” and said he believed the allegations.

The problem for the GOP is that while they don’t want to deal with Moore, they also don’t want to hand a Senate seat to the Democrats. And even if Moore had voluntarily chosen to step aside, he couldn’t be removed from the ticket. That’s because some ballots in Alabama have already been printed and sent out. It would be very difficult for a write-in challenger to actually win if Moore stays in. (A Republican-leaning independent is staging his own write-in bid, though he doesn’t appear to have backing from the national party.)

But as it became clear Moore wasn’t going anywhere, leading Republicans began to waver. Trump began defending Moore shortly before Thanksgiving, saying that “he [Moore] totally denies” the allegations. Then on December 4, a little more than a week before the December 12 election, he outright endorsed the candidate:

Moore confirmed Trump’s backing on Twitter:

Trump continued to lambaste Jones and promote Moore on Twitter last week. Trump also attended a rally in Pensacola, in the Florida Panhandle, on December 8 — conspicuously close to the Alabama border days before the special election. There, Trump fired up voters, calling Jones a “total puppet” of the Democrats.

“We want people that are going to protect your gun rights, great trade deals instead of the horrible deals. And we want jobs, jobs, jobs,” Trump said. “So get out and vote for Roy Moore. Do it. Do it. Do it.”

Trump followed up with a pro-Moore robocall scheduled to go out Monday, a day before the vote.

But Trump’s support may have erased some of the qualms the Republican Party had about Moore. The Republican National Committee returned to Alabama after pulling its support earlier in November. “The RNC is the political arm of the president and we support the president,” a senior RNC official told CNN’s Rebecca Berg. A pro-Trump super PAC, America First Action, is also throwing $1.1 million toward Moore in the critical last days of the campaign, according to the Washington Post.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee will not restore funding for Moore. But some Republican leaders are taking a noticeably less aggressive stance against Moore. McConnell is now saying Moore’s fate is in the hands of Alabama voters.

“The people of Alabama are going to decide a week from Tuesday who they want to send to the Senate,” McConnell said on CBS’s Face the Nation on December 3. “It’s really up to them. It’s been a pretty robust campaign with a lot of people weighing in. The president and I, of course, supported somebody different earlier in the process. But in the end, the voters of Alabama will make their choice.”

Despite McConnell’s apparent resignation to Moore’s potential election, other prominent Republicans have taken a more aggressive stance against Moore. Alabama’s senior senator, Richard Shelby, said on CNN’s State of the Union on Sunday that he could not vote for Moore, and choose a write-in instead. “Alabama deserves better,” he said, in explaining his decision and encouraging other voters to do the same.

At least one Republican senator has endorsed the Democrat: Jeff Flake (R-AZ) tweeted a picture of a $100 check made out to Jones’s campaign. In the subject line, he wrote: “Country over party.”

Even if Moore does win on Tuesday, his path to the Senate will not be completely clear. Republican senators are saying that the Senate Ethics Committee will investigate Moore if he wins. This is tricky, as all of the allegations against him occurred long before he was a Senate candidate. It’s unclear what the outcome of such an investigation; either way, it’s likely to take several months.

One possible outcome of an Ethics investigation: a Senate vote to expel Moore if he wins and is seated. There’s little precedent for expulsion of senators in modern times — according to the Senate Historical Office, there have only been 15 expulsions, of which 14 related to support for the Confederacy; the other was a 1797 treason case. Still, in a remarkable move, Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO), head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said in November that Moore should be expelled if he does win.

Could Democrats actually win this seat?

A campaign graphic from Democratic nominee Doug Jones.

Democrats have long looked at the 2018 Senate map with utter dread. With just eight Republican-held seats on the ballot compared to 26 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’s difficult to see how the party could pick up the three GOP-held seats it would need to regain control. Sen. Dean Heller’s seat in Nevada is one promising possibility, 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. Jones has stepped up the attacks against Moore in the final weeks of the campaign, running pointed campaign ads that refer to Moore as an “abuser.”

National Democratic leaders have mostly tried to steer clear of Alabama, though Sen. Cory Booker and Deval Patrick, the former governor of Massachusetts, both stumped for Jones in the critical last weekend before the election.

Jones has also been fundraising relatively strongly, and polls have shown him reasonably competitive with Moore. Jones got a boost after the stream of allegations against Moore, but the two candidates have mostly fallen back to a statistical dead heat. Moore appears to have a slight advantage heading into Tuesday, but it will likely all come down to turnout.

It remains entirely possible that deeply conservative Alabama voters will back Moore in spite of everything. A recent CBS News poll revealed that 71 percent of Alabama Republicans thought the allegations against Moore were fake, and another recent poll even showed that 29 percent of the state’s voters say the allegations make them more likely to vote for Moore.

Ezra Klein argues that voters are probably affirming their identities as conservatives, perhaps dismissing sexual misconduct allegations as mere “fake news.” (And after all, it’s only been a year since the US elected Donald Trump as president, even though he was facing a series of sexual assault allegations.)

Politically, the best-case, realistic scenario for Democrats is probably that enough voters are disgusted with Moore that they’ll sit out the election (low turnout is expected anyway) or opt for a write-in candidate, following Shelby’s example.

Even though the GOP hasn’t thrown their support behind a write-in candidate, if enough people opted to vote that way, it could 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.

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