RNC renews support for Roy Moore amid allegations, polls hint at a GOP victory in Alabama
Alabama Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore has been under siege for weeks, losing the support of the national Republican Party amid accusations of sexual misconduct and child molestation from a number of women. Now, one week away from the special election, the GOP is back on board with Moore, leaving some questioning the party's decision to put campaign cash and political muscle behind the controversial candidate.
The Republican Party sharply distanced itself from Roy Moore in November, after the Washington Post and other news outlets published the accounts of a half dozen women who claimed Moore sexually abused them when they were only teenagers. Moore rejected the accusations, but within days of the first accusation being published, the Republican National Committee pulled out of a joint fundraising and field campaigning agreement with the Alabama Republican.
The chairman of the Senate Republican campaign committee, Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) said the Senate "should vote to expel" Moore if he won the special election. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said he believed Moore' accusers and encouraged the candidate to "step aside." President Donald Trump and the White House carefully kept their distance, avoiding openly endorsing or criticizing Moore.
All of that changed on Monday. Donald Trump endorsed Moore on Twitter and followed it up with a phone call to the candidate. Moore quoted the president as saying, "Go get 'em Roy!" adding that Trump "offered his full support and said he needs a fighter to help him in the US Senate."
Very quickly, the RNC came back online and the pro-Trump America First Action super PAC said it would spend $1.1 million on Moore in the final stretch of the race.
On Tuesday, Trump explained his decision to back Moore. "We don't want to have a liberal Democrat in Alabama, believe me," Trump told reporters, adding, "I think he's going to do very well."
Alabama political strategist and pollster Jonathan Gray noted a different trend that foreshadowed the GOP's decision to rally behind Moore.
"It's convenient that Roy Moore's numbers were getting better last week and this weekend," Gray said, noting that none of the major Republican players "stuck their necks out" for Moore when he was down by five or ten points.
"I think the Republicans saw Roy Moore's numbers coming back up and they saw what was happening [with sexual assault allegations against] their Democratic counterparts, and they realized they better get back on board with Roy Moore," Gray continued.
The dynamic has changed over the course of three weeks since Moore's campaign was derailed by numerous sexual misconduct allegations, Gray explained. The voters have had time to assess the credibility of Moore's accusers and, according to polling data, the majority of voters in the state don't believe the allegations.
According to a recent CBS poll, 71 percent of Republicans believe the accusations against Moore are fake.
"People have rationalized them. They've thought through them," Gray said of the allegations. They have also seen a growing number of high-profile political personalities, celebrities, journalists and others implicated in sexual harassment or sexual assault cases, from Matt Lauer and Charlie Rose to Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) to Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) and Rep. Blake Fahrenthold (R-Texas).
"There's a large part of that that's kind of taken the sting off the idea that this is all about Roy Moore," Gray said. Partly, he continued, it's because many of the allegations against current office holders are more recent, whereas the most damaging allegations against Moore date back to the 1970s.
In this process, Moore has turned his polling numbers around. According to statewide polls released on Tuesday, Moore currently holds a seven-point lead over Democrat Doug Jones.
Combining a more positive response from voters in the state with Trump's endorsement, his planned campaign stop in neighboring Pensacola, Florida later this week, and a flood of new campaign money, Gray believes that "all the momentum is pointing towards Roy Moore."
However, the sudden resurgence of support around Roy Moore doesn't erase the problems that the candidate will likely face in the Senate if he wins on December 12.
On Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told reporters that he was standing by his initial assessment of Moore, saying, "I had hoped earlier he would withdraw as a candidate. That obviously is not going to happen."
McConnell continued that if Moore is elected "I think he would immediately have an issue with the ethics committee which they would take up." The Senate leader, who backed Moore's Republican primary opponent Luther Strange, previously said he believed Moore accusers and would support an ethics investigation of Moore if the voters send him to Washington.
Democratic communications specialist and issue advocate Tracy Sefl warned that a Moore victory next Tuesday will "without a doubt" become a liability for other Senate Republicans.
"I would hope the Senate would look seriously at expelling him," she said, adding that among the broader electorate, "I imagine the appetite for expelling would be greater than Senate GOP leaders may realize."
Conservative political commentator Erich Reimer expects that even if Moore wins, he won't be able to get away from the allegations of sexual misconduct, which he has repeatedly denied.
"Whatever happens, if Roy Moore wins, I don't think it's going to be the end of the investigation of the allegations against him," Reimer said. "Certainly there are a lot of questions that need to be answered."
If Alabamians do elect Moore, he will join a growing number of Democrats and Republicans who are being accused of sexual harassment and misconduct at a time when lawmakers are looking to rewrite the rules that apply to harassers and their victims.
The recent allegations against Sen. Franken, Rep. Conyers, Rep. Farenthold and Rep. Ruben Kihuen (D-Nev.) have demonstrated the fact that there isn't a clear set of standards for dealing with sexual assault allegations, from the left or the right.
Faced with claims that he groped numerous women, both before and during his time as a senator, some lawmakers called on Al Franken to resign, others demanded an ethics investigation and others stayed silent. The National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) called on Democrats to return any campaign money they received from Franken, and a number of Democratic senators did, including Claire McCaskill (Mo.), Jon Tester (Mont.) and Sherrod Brown (Ohio).
When Rep. Conyers, the longest-serving representative in Congress, was accused by numerous women of sexual harassment, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) initially defended the congressman before leading virtually the entire Democratic caucus in calling for his resignation. Conyers announced on Tuesday that he will step down.
Republicans have been split on Farenthold, who agreed to repay an $84,000 sexual harassment settlement that was paid for using taxpayer dollars. While some GOP lawmakers are calling for the Texas congressman to resign, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) has not gone that far.
Democratic political strategist Rebecca Katz said that the reluctance to condemn Farenholdt, combined with the decision to support Moore is an indication of "a double standard." While the Democrats response was not as fast and decisive as she had hoped, she sees them moving toward a "zero tolerance" approach to sexual harassment. "Republicans," she argued, "are doubling down on any candidate who will win, regardless of what they're accused of."
While some have suggested Republicans and Democrats are handling the cases differently, Sefl argued that because of the large array of politicians accused of sexual misconduct "voters are working hard to not normalize and not rationalize their support."
She added that neither party can claim the moral high ground when it comes to dealing with sexual misconduct, "but the bigger question is which party is willing to learn more quickly?"
Trump and other Republicans have made it clear that they need Moore to hold on to their already narrow majority, especially as they head into a potentially difficult midterm election year.
In 2018, Senate Republicans are looking at a very narrow path to maintaining their already slim 52-seat majority in the Senate with the retirement of Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and close races in Arizona and Nevada.
That calculus is informing the sudden change of heart by the national Republican Party and Donald Trump, according to Katz.
"They were against it until they thought it would be winnable," she said.
Katz continued that the last-minute show of support from Trump and the GOP shows that the president and the party are only interested in pursuing their agenda. "They basically feel like it's worth it as long as they get a tax cut for the rich and put conservatives on the Supreme Court," she charged. "The party of values seems to have lost them all."
That type of calculation is hardly new in politics, explained Gray who is not surprised that the Republican Party and Trump decided to throw their support back behind Moore. In 2016, Republicans "held their nose" and "voted for a guy who in his own words admitting to sexually assaulting women when he grabbed them," Gray noted.
"Nobody voted for him because he said he wanted to grab women in that way, they voted for him in spite of that, because the issues were more important than the man," he continued. And in Alabama, he expects voters will make the same rationalization, that the issues will trump the alleged actions of the candidate.
"To some people, it is appalling that a voter might say, I don't care about these underage allegations from 40 years ago, I care about these issues facing our nation," he said. "But those are things Republican voters are going to have to answer."