An insurgent Republican firebrand, reviled by party leadership and facing well-funded opposition from both parties, bests his deep-pocketed GOP establishment primary rivals, and weeks before the general election finds himself besieged by allegations of sexual misconduct. His supporters won’t make an affirmative case beyond the need to control the future composition of the U.S. Supreme Court. The best argument most can muster is: at least he’s not a Democrat.
Last year, that firebrand was Donald Trump. Now it’s Roy Moore. And it’s the latter who is leading the charge among those supporting the former.
Trump’s own transgressions involved both the notorious Access Hollywood tape, released a month before the election, on which he was heard bragging about being so famous that he could sexually assault women—or, as he put it, “grab them by the pussy”—and a slew of women who accused him of assault and harassment. For Moore, the allegations are decades old, but even more serious: that in his thirties, he sexually assaulted teenage girls and routinely hit on others.
In both cases, the candidates saw immediate and widespread political defections. Then-Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus even encouraged Trump to withdraw from the race. Most of Moore’s would-be Republican colleagues in the Senate quickly rescinded—or at least qualified—their endorsements after allegations began surfacing early this month.
But support among the base of the party persisted for both, not necessarily because of the merits of the candidates themselves, but because of the prospect that other option was a victory for the Democratic Party.
Trump captured that dynamic in a series of Sunday morning tweets that effectively endorsed Moore’s candidacy without mentioning his name.
“I endorsed [incumbent Sen.] Luther Strange in the Alabama Primary. He shot way up in the polls but it wasn’t enough,” Trump wrongly claimed. “Can’t let Schumer/Pelosi win this race. Liberal Jones would be BAD!” he added, referring to Doug Jones, the Democratic candidate in the race.
That came after an earlier missive on the race.
Backing Moore without mentioning him has become the Trump White House’s default position when pressed on the allegations against the former state Supreme Court justice. After declaring in the wake of the allegations against Moore “that there is no Senate seat worth more than a child,” White House counselor Kellyanne Conway suddenly shifted her tone last week, focusing solely on opposition to Jones and avoiding any affirmative defense of his opponent.
“We want the votes in the Senate to get this tax bill through,” Conway told Fox and Friends last week. Jones “will be a vote against tax cuts. He is weak on crime. Weak on borders. He is strong on raising your taxes. He is terrible for property owners," she insisted. Asked whether that amounted to a Moore endorsement, Conway would only say: "I'm telling you that we want the votes in the Senate to get this tax bill through.”
For the White House, the stakes of the race are significant. A Democratic upset in Alabama would trim the Republican Party’s Senate majority to one at a time that every vote is crucial to advancing the Trump’s tax reform agenda. It would also further the previously unimaginable possibility that the GOP’s Senate majority may be endangered heading into the midterm elections.
The loss of a Senate majority would virtually deprive Republican of any chance of major legislative or judicial accomplishments. And few have distilled those stakes of the Alabama Senate contest better—or more candidly—than Kay Ivey, the state’s Republican governor.
“We need to have a Republican in the United States Senate to vote on things like Supreme Court justices, other appointments the Senate has to confirm and make major decisions,” Ivey said, while insisting that she did believe the accounts of Moore’s accusers.
Ivey’s line of logic was remarkably similar to those who acknowledged Trump’s inflammatory comments in October 2016 but said they still planned to support him because of the Supreme Court vacancy that awaited him.
“It is the same sort of moral escape clause,” said Rick Wilson, a “Never Trump” Republican and political consultant who remains highly critical of the president and Moore. “But it’s ultimately rather reductive and at some point what can't be excused?” Wilson added. “’Well I know he’s a cannibal, but at least he’s not a Democrat’ is the kind of thing that's going to wear thin outside of the narrow partisan lane Alabama represents.”
In Alabama, though, the parallels to Trump’s own victory don’t stop there. Moore, like the president, is a totem for anti-establishment conservatives such as Steve Bannon, Trump’s former chief strategist, who has rallied his populist-nationalist political base to Moore’s defense.
Moore, like Trump, also has few allies among the establishment wing of the party. He fought off not just Strange’s campaign but a well-funded political effort by forces allied with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has become Moore’s stand-in for all D.C. Republicans critical of his candidacy.
But even as he wars with his fellow party members, Moore also faces an onslaught of attack ads from well-funded Democrats. Since sexual misconduct allegations began piling up against him, a new outside spender has popped up in the Alabama Senate race. The group is called Highway 31, and not much is known about it beyond its leader, Adam Muhlendorf, an Alabama media consultant with an array of largely non political clients.
Highway 31 officially formed on Nov. 6. In the weeks since, it’s spent more than $1.3 million attacking Moore and boosting Jones, making the super PAC by far the biggest outside spender of the general election contest. Most of its expenditures have been routed through prominent D.C. Democratic consultancies such as Bully Pulpit Interactive and Waterfront Strategies.
Highway 31 is trying to make Jones—who has drawn fire for his pro-choice views—more palatable in deep-red Alabama. One of its recent ads sought to burnish his Christian faith and support for the Second Amendment.
“As for Roy Moore,” Muhlendorf said in a statement last week, “the headlines in Alabama in the recent weeks and months make it clear, he is not fit to serve in the U.S. Senate.”
It was language that closely mirrored statements from even some Republicans in the wake of the Access Hollywood release. Sen. Mark Kirk, an Illinois Republican, blasted Trump at the time as “unprepared and unfit to be president of the United States.”
A month later, Kirk was defeated and Trump prevailed.