Amid new allegations that Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore molested teenage girls decades ago, GOP leaders intensified their calls Monday for him to quit the race, even threatening to expel Moore if he wins.
The accusations against Moore have thrown the GOP into a crisis, splintering the party and risking defeat in the Dec. 12 special election, for which polls show Democrat Doug Jones now has a narrow lead in the Deep South state.
On Monday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) called on Moore to withdraw from the race. The head of the Republican campaign committee, Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), said the Senate should vote to expel Moore if he is elected by Alabama voters.
"I believe the women," McConnell told reporters Monday in Kentucky. "I think he should step aside."
Four women told the Washington Post that they had been pursued by Moore when they were in their teens — one as young as 14 — and he was in his 30s, in a report published last week. The revelations come as the nation is grappling with widespread claims of sexual misconduct at the highest levels of entertainment, media and business.
Another Alabama woman stepped forward Monday, claiming Moore tried to force her into a sexual position when she was 16, after offering to give her a ride home from her waitress shift in the late 1970s.
Beverly Young Nelson, who turns 56 on Tuesday, said Moore, then a 30-year-old deputy district attorney in Etowah County, had been a regular customer at the restaurant and often complimented her on her looks.
A few days before Christmas in 1977, Nelson said, she brought her high school yearbook into the restaurant and Moore asked if he could sign it. She said yes, and he wrote, "To a sweeter more beautiful girl I could not say 'Merry Christmas.'"
He signed it, "Love, Roy Moore D.A.," according to photocopies of the page provided to reporters by Los Angeles attorney Gloria Allred, who is representing Nelson.
"I trusted Mr. Moore because he was the district attorney," Nelson said. "I thought that he was simply doing something nice."
But instead of taking her home, Nelson said, Moore drove to the back of the restaurant and began to grope her, putting his hand on her breasts and later squeezing the back of her neck, attempting to force her head toward his crotch.
"I thought that he was going to rape me," she said. "I was twisting and I was struggling and I was begging him to stop."
Nelson said he eventually allowed her to open the car door and she either fell out or was pushed out. She said Moore told her that "no one will ever believe you" if she told anyone about what had happened.
This is the first time Nelson is disclosing the allegations publicly, though she said she had previously told her sister, mother and husband about her encounter with Moore.
Moore's Senate campaign immediately dismissed the new allegations.
"Gloria Allred is a sensationalist leading a witch hunt, and she is only around to create a spectacle. Allred was the attorney who claims credit for giving us Roe vs. Wade, which has resulted in the murder of tens of millions of unborn babies," campaign chairman Bill Armistead said in a statement.
Moore has denied any sexual misconduct, though initially he acknowledged dating young women and said he only did so with the permission of their mothers. Asked last week if he recalled dating girls as young as 17 during that time, Moore told Fox's Sean Hannity: "Not generally, no. If I did, you know, I'm not going to dispute anything, but I don't remember anything like that."
That initially weak denial led several GOP senators to call for Moore to quit.
Moore so far is steadfastly refusing to step aside. He swiftly shot back that it's McConnell who should go, echoing the views of former Trump advisor Stephen K. Bannon, who has turned the Alabama Senate race into the marquee contest in his emerging battle to take down establishment Republicans he views as insufficiently loyal to President Trump's agenda.
For many activists on the conservative right, the race has become a referendum on McConnell, whom Bannon wants to topple as Senate leader.
The former judge's wife, Kayla, also went on the attack on Facebook, calling the allegations a "witchhunt." The couple have said they plan to sue the Washington Post.
Because the election is next month, it is too late under state rules to remove Moore's name from the ballot if he decides to step aside in the race, which is a special election to fill the seat held by Jeff Sessions, now Trump's attorney general.
That leaves Republicans scrambling to persuade state leaders to postpone the election or consider a write-in candidate in a long-shot bid to stop Jones' momentum — or at least block Moore from winning.
The top contender often mentioned for the write-in campaign, Sen. Luther Strange, was appointed to fill Sessions' seat earlier this year, but lost the primary despite millions spent by McConnell allies against Moore. Some have floated having Sessions run for his old seat.
Strategists say they doubt Strange or another Republican write-in candidate could win, in part because they are not as popular as Moore — who has a deeply dedicated following among Christians and conservatives — and because they expect Moore's supporters would still cast ballots for him even though those votes would not be counted if he withdrew.
"We'll see," McConnell said. "That's an option we're looking at, whether or not there's someone who could mount a write-in campaign successfully."
Gardner said that if Moore is elected, "the Senate should vote to expel him, because he does not meet the ethical and moral requirements of the United States Senate."
The National Republican Senatorial Committee has stopped funding the race.
In many ways, the outcome in Alabama is precisely what McConnell sought to avoid by backing Strange and playing a more forceful role in primary contests ahead of next year's midterm election.
The Republican leader wants to prevent a repeat of the 2010 and 2012 elections, when candidates who were outside the mainstream won GOP nominations but failed to win the general election.
Republicans point to the failed candidacies of Todd Akin in Missouri who suggested that women could not become pregnant from "legitimate rape," and Richard Mourdock in Indiana, who said that pregnancies that resulted from rape were "intended" by God.
On Monday, at least a half-dozen more Republican senators announced their opposition to Moore, saying he should step aside.
"I did not find his denials to be convincing and believe that he should withdraw from the Senate race in Alabama," said Sen. Susan Collins of Maine. South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham also joined the growing list.
The campaign for Jones, the Democrat, said in a statement: "We applaud the courage of these women. Roy Moore will be held accountable by the people of Alabama for his actions."
Mascaro reported from Washington, D.C. Agrawal reported from New York.