Senate Republicans moved swiftly to distance themselves from their party’s nominee for Senate in Alabama on Thursday after multiple women accused him of inappropriate sexual conduct when they were minors—including one who said he molested her at the age of 14.
Within hours of a Washington Post story reporting the allegations against Roy Moore, a former chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, the Senate’s top Republicans called on Moore to withdraw from the race—albeit with a caveat.
“If these allegations are found to be true, Roy Moore must drop out of the Alabama special Senate election,” National Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Cory Gardner (R-CO) said in a statement.
“I just recently put out a statement saying if these allegations are true, Roy Moore should step aside for all the obvious reasons. Very disturbing allegations,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) told reporters outside the Senate chamber.
“If there is any truth to that, he ought to step aside, of course,” Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) told The Daily Beast about the allegations against Moore, who is running to fill Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ former Senate seat.
Even Sens. Mike Lee (R-UT) and Steve Daines (R-MT), two of the few sitting senators to endorse Moore, said he should step aside—but, like their colleagues, both added the caveat, “if these allegations are true.”
Definitively showing the veracity of the claims against Moore may be a tall order. The stories were relayed to the Post on the record—and supported, the Post says, by accounts from more than two dozen other sources. But Moore has flatly denied the allegations, raising the question of what standard would have to be met for Republican officials to call unequivocally for Moore’s withdrawal, short of a confession from Moore himself.
The only Republican senator who wasn’t waiting to resolve the he-said-she-said matter was John McCain (R-AZ), who called the allegations “deeply disturbing and disqualifying,” and said Moore “should immediately step aside and allow the people of Alabama to elect a candidate they can be proud of.”
But it’s not actually clear that Moore could withdraw from the race, or that Republicans could install someone in his place. Technically, he could say he will not serve if elected—likely leaving it to the state’s governor to appoint a replacement senator if he were to win. But there is no formal mechanism for his name to be removed from the ballot since, as the Alabama secretary of state’s office noted, absentee ballots have already been sent out with Moore’s name on them.
“He could withdraw or the party could withdraw their nomination,” John Bennett, a spokesman for the office explained. “He would be on the ballot regardless, but if the nomination was withdrawn, the board would not certify results.”
Another Republican candidate could run against Moore as a write-in, which is allowed under state law. And on Thursday, Sen. Lisa Murkowksi (R-AK), who won a write-in campaign herself, was urging her fellow party members to take that route.
Privately, Moore’s allies—which includes President Donald Trump’s former top strategist Stephen Bannon—contend that the Post story and the on-record accounts are all part of a political hit job, echoing what happened to Trump a year ago. Last year, following the release of the “grab ’em by the pussy” Access Hollywood tape, numerous women came forward to accuse the Republican presidential nominee of sexual assault and harassment.
The month before the election in Alabama, Team Moore’s strategy and messaging will reflect those sentiments as they continue to try to discredit the story. Ahead of the Post story’s publication, Breitbart News—a website run by Bannon that is extremely pro-Moore—was told in advance that the former outlet’s article was coming out “imminently,” and ran interference for Moore.
While other politicians have been able to survive such controversies in the past (see: Trump, Donald J.), Moore faces a difficult task. His political reputation is based upon his overt, unapologetic religiosity. He has said, for instance, that same-sex marriage would open the door for marriage between an adult and a child.
He has also blasted his fellow politicians for not focusing on morality, and insisted that there was “all kinds of sexual perversion” rampant throughout the country.
Twice, he was thrown off the state supreme court for refusing to comply with judicial orders—including to allow for same-sex marriages. And because of that, and a host of wildly controversial statements, he has few friends in the Senate. Indeed, most of his would-be colleagues backed the incumbent, Sen. Luther Strange (R-AL).
It was only after Moore defeated Strange in a late September primary runoff that establishment Republicans largely fell in line.
A day after Moore’s primary victory, the Republican National Committee pledged its full support for Moore’s general election effort. “The voters chose their nominee,” RNC chair Ronna McDaniel told Fox News. “We're going to get in and make sure that Roy Moore is the next senator from Alabama, and the voters did the right thing.”
Weeks later, the RNC and the GOP’s Senate campaign arm threw their financial support behind Moore’s candidacy. The two party organs set up a joint fundraising committee with Moore’s campaign and the Alabama GOP, boosting the totals Moore could raise from individual contributors. The joint fundraising committee has yet to disclose financial information to the Federal Election Commission. But the RNC notably demanded that every Democratic recipient of donations from disgraced film producer Harvey Weinstein return that money after allegations emerged over his serial sexual predation.
The RNC did not return a request for comment. The White House, similarly, did not respond to a request for comment regarding whether or not President Trump still plans on campaigning for Moore.
Senate Democrats were notably muted after the Post story was published, with Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) declining to comment. The Democrat in the Alabama Senate race, Doug Jones, faces an uphill battle. But sources in the state tell The Daily Beast that polling has him in striking distance of Moore—within four to seven percentage points. Moreover, Jones has been running ads on television for four weeks without any response from Moore or the Republican party.
“This is a winnable seat and we are insane not to pursue it maximally,” former DNC Chair Howard Dean said in an interview before the Moore revelations. “I know Alabama is a conservative state. But they are Americans and they can’t possibly think what Trump is doing is okay. Jones is a homeboy. He has distinguished himself. I don’t think all Alabamians are racists. That’s a northern canard. They will stand for decency if they have a chance and this is a decent candidate we have versus a really awful one that they have.”
—With additional reporting by Gideon Resnick and Sam Stein