In 62 seconds, the senior senator from Wisconsin found nearly a dozen different ways to say, “I don’t know.”
That senator, Ron Johnson (R-WI), desperately wanted to spend the week selling tax overhaul legislation. Instead, he, like others, was badgered with questions on Monday about the mounting allegations of sexual misconduct against Alabama’s Roy Moore, the party’s candidate for Senate who is facing mounting pressure from his would-be colleagues to drop out of the race altogether.
“Don’t you guys have enough quotes from people on that?” Johnson said, before adding, among other things:
“How about let’s talk about tax reform?”
“I have no idea.”
“I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know.”
“I prefer not being asked about it,” he laughed at one point.
Johnson was just one of many Republicans left scrambling to contain the fallout of the latest, disturbing accusations lobbed at Moore. Hours earlier, another woman, Beverly Young Nelson, came forward alleging that Moore tried to rape her when she was 16 years old and he was a 28-year-old district attorney. She had a high school yearbook inscription from Moore to prove that he knew her at the time. Nelson’s accusation followed last week’s Washington Post report, in which four women alleged that Moore pursued sexual relationships with them when he was in his thirties. One of the women was 14 years old at the time. By Monday night, there were reports that Moore had been barred from a mall because of his efforts to pursue young girls.
“It’s drip by drip, cut by cut. It doesn’t look good,” Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) said. “It’s more than a distraction. This is serious.”
Underscoring the significance of the matter, the leader of the Senate GOP campaign arm formally disavowed Moore and said the Senate should vote to expel him if he wins the general election on Dec. 12.
“I believe the individuals speaking out against Roy Moore spoke with courage and truth, proving he is unfit to serve in the United States Senate and he should not run for office,” Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO), the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC), said in a statement.
Gardner’s line in the sand reflected a sharpening, more aggressive posture that Senate Republicans are hoping might stave off an electoral calamity when voters head to the polls in Alabama next month. Allies of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) had been devising ways to get Moore out of the race over the weekend, with McConnell himself calling on Moore to step aside on Monday. The New York Times, meanwhile, reported that members of the White House were engaged in those conversations, too. Others in the Senate seemed supportive of ousting Moore should he win—with the hope that Alabama’s Republican governor, Kay Ivey, would then be able to replace him.
“When the head of your own party’s senatorial committee is advocating you be expelled before you get elected, I just don’t think you have a very bright Senate career ahead of you,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said. “There is no winning here. If you get elected, you come in a fashion that I think it would be very hard to be effective.”
And in a remarkable break from his party, Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) told The Daily Beast on Monday that he would, “no doubt,” support any Democratic candidate over Moore, adding: “I would literally—if I were in Alabama—I would run to the polling place to vote for the Democrat.”
But beyond Graham and Flake, there were few public supporters for Gardner’s proposal to oust Moore if Alabama’s voters choose him. Instead, the chief effort seemed geared toward preventing that win from happening in the first place. Alabama’s state election law prohibits a candidate from being removed from the official ballot within 76 days of an election. And with Moore dismissing allegations against him and pledging to remain in the race, efforts to find a viable write-in candidate accelerated notably on Monday.
Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) has floated Sen. Luther Strange (R-AL)—the incumbent who was appointed to the seat when Jeff Sessions became attorney general but lost to Moore in the GOP primary—as an “excellent alternative.” Others Republicans are gauging Strange’s interest in a potential write-in campaign, three Republican congressional sources told The Daily Beast.
“While there’s some question about Alabama’s election laws and whether a write-in candidacy for Luther Strange is a viable option, so far that option has the most traction among members. Everyone loves big Luther,” a Senate Republican aide said.
But other Republicans doubt that Strange would mount such a campaign so long as Moore remains in the race, and the senator himself said on Monday that a write-in bid candidacy is “highly unlikely.”
“Before any real write-in campaign has any chance at winning they have to look at the 200,000 votes that Roy Moore will get hell or high water,” an Alabama Republican operative close to the race told The Daily Beast. “Those voters were not moved by millions of dollars spent in negative advertisements against Roy Moore and a President Trump campaign rally in support of his opponent Luther Strange.”
With the likelihood that Moore’s core base of supporters will stand by him through the election, a write-in effort risks bifurcating the Republican vote, thereby handing the election to the Democratic candidate, Doug Jones. Jones would not need to win 50 percent of the vote in order to get elected, the Alabama secretary of state’s office confirmed to The Daily Beast on Monday.
A Jones victory could have serious implications for McConnell and for President Trump’s agenda, as it would reduce the GOP’s majority in the upper chamber from 52-48 to 51-49. That would make it even more difficult to pass a tax overhaul bill and to repeal and replace Obamacare next year. For that reason, wrote Scott Jennings, a prominent Kentucky Republican close to McConnell, Trump must intervene to oust Moore and make way for Sessions, the attorney general, to mount a write-in bid instead.
“Moore is embarrassing Trump, and the president should rid himself of the brand anvil,” Jennings wrote in a column for the Courier-Journal. “President Trump can lead the Republican Party down a better path by using his political influence to prod the Alabama GOP to a good decision.”
Shelby, who served alongside Sessions for two decades, uttered the attorney general’s name unprompted when The Daily Beast asked if he would back a write-in campaign for Strange. He declined to say what decision he will make on Election Day. But he did make clear that he isn’t eager at the possibility of serving in the Senate with Moore.
“I would hope that Roy Moore is not the face of the Republican party,” Shelby said. “If this keeps up, it would be irreparable damage [to the GOP brand].”