With more than 48 hours of campaigning still left in Alabama’s scandal-shrouded U.S. Senate campaign — and the outcome far from clear — some Republicans have already conceded defeat.
From their perspective, Tuesday will yield one of two unhappy results.
Either voters will elect a Democratic U.S. senator from one of the most deeply conservative states in the country, slicing the GOP’s slender majority to a bare 51 to 49; or the Republican Party will seat Roy Moore, an accused sexual predator with a history of outlandish statements who, if Democrats have their way, will effectively serve as running mate for every Republican seeking office in 2018.
With President Trump forcefully backing Moore, “it gives Democrats the ability to drive a narrative that starts with the president and runs through the United States Senate about what the Republican Party stands for,” said Matt David, a GOP consultant. “That’s defending accused pedophiles and embracing conspiracy theories.”
Moore supporters scoff at the notion.
“They are the same Republicans that said electing Donald J. Trump would be the apocalypse,” said Andy Surabian, a strategist for a political action committee, Great America Alliance, investing heavily in Moore’s success.
Still, what should have been a perfunctory campaign — a Democrat has not been elected U.S. senator here in more than two decades — has instead turned into a cliffhanger and made Alabama an unlikely battleground in the growing civil war sundering the GOP under Trump.
In the campaign’s final days, the two leading candidates, Moore and Democrat Doug Jones, slashed away in a flurry of attacks that belied the season’s holiday cheer.
TV ads blazed in a ceaseless negative barrage and mailboxes were crammed with mailers painting Jones, a former federal prosecutor, as a dangerous liberal and Moore, the state’s ex-chief justice, as an extremist and embarrassment to Alabama.
Both sides turned to celebrity surrogates — Trump touting Moore at a rally just across the border in Florida, Jones stumping alongside African American leaders — in an effort to spur turnout just two weeks before Christmas.
The oddly timed election is being held to fill the seat formerly held by Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions.
Moore has long been a controversial figure. He was twice removed from the bench for defying federal court orders and has espoused a range of views — praising the slavery era, banning Muslims from Congress, suggesting the 9/11 attack was divine retribution — that place him well outside the political mainstream.
Nonetheless, he was a heavy favorite to win Tuesday until a number of women stepped forward alleging sexual misconduct, including charges he assaulted two girls — ages 14 and 16 — when he was in his 30s. Moore, 70, has strenuously denied the allegations.
National party leaders expressed revulsion and called on Moore to quit the race. When he refused, and efforts to delay the election and find a replacement failed, they denounced his candidacy and cut off funding.
Trump, who faces his own set of sexual harassment charges, took a more measured approach. Overseas at the time, he begged off comment; upon his return he questioned the allegations, noting the considerable time that passed until they surfaced.
He then endorsed Moore, tentatively, but more recently with full-throated enthusiasm, saying his vote was needed in the Senate to pass tax legislation and tougher immigration laws among other agenda items. The Republican National Committee renewed its financial support.
“The future of this country cannot afford to lose a seat,” Trump said Friday night at a boisterous rally in Pensacola, close enough to draw Alabama voters but physically distancing the president should Moore lose. “We can’t afford to have a liberal Democrat who is completely controlled by Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer,” the Democrats’ congressional leaders.
Moore was notably absent from the event, which underscored the dicey politics and arm’s-length nature of the president’s embrace.
Others in his party remain unmoved.
Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado, the head of the GOP’s Senate campaign arm, reiterated the decision to cut off Moore’s funding and renounce his candidacy, telling the Weekly Standard, “Roy Moore will never have the support of the senatorial committee.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky also continues to withhold his backing and, more crucially, funding for Moore, who is being overwhelmingly outspent by Jones. McConnell vowed to open an Ethics Committee investigation the moment Moore set foot in the Capitol.
The result is a deepening chasm within the party, even as Republicans move toward two of the party’s long-sought goals, a $1.5-trillion tax cut and partial repeal of the Affordable Care Act.
Apart from expressing their personal disgust, some Republicans questioned whether Moore could be trusted to support the party once in office, noting the mutual contempt between the candidate and much of the GOP establishment.
“By no means is he a solid vote,” said Reed Galen, a veteran of the George W. Bush administration. “He won’t owe them a thing. That might make him as dangerous as anything.”
Even more worrisome, said Galen and others, is the guilt-by-association damage they fear Moore could do to the party and its candidates, especially among women and college-educated voters, who will be key to the 2018 fight to control Congress.
They noted the stark contrast with Democrats, who ousted Rep. John Conyers Jr. of Michigan and Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota after charges of sexual misconduct.
“If the Republican Party represents the anger and resentment and nationalism and nativism of Donald Trump, and now you mix in the abhorrent behavior of Roy Moore, is that the kind of people you want to be associated with?” Galen said. “Voters may not make that connection, but I assure you anyone running … will make that connection for them.”
Democrats aren’t waiting. Already candidates have begun tying their GOP opponents to Moore, in House, Senate and gubernatorial races throughout the country.
“It’s a big branding problem for Republicans,” said Jared Leopold, a spokesman for the Democratic Governors Association. “They’ve got Donald Trump’s unpopular agenda, and they’ve got a party that seems to have lost its moral core.”
Ed Rollins, a longtime GOP consultant and Trump supporter, all but invited Democrats to keep it up.
“If that’s how they want to spend their resources, we’ll talk about taxes. We’ll talk about other things,” Rollins said. “I’ve seen this many times. ‘If this one is elected, it’s the end of the Republican Party.’ It’s clearly not.”
Others are less sanguine, but find small solace in the promised investigation awaiting Moore if he wins Tuesday.
Scott Jennings, a former McConnell strategist who remains close to the Senate leader, said Moore would be a “brand anvil” weighing down Republicans nationally.