The accusations that Moore, when he was in his 30s, dated teenagers and had sexual contact with a 14-year old have created an almost existential crisis for some Republicans.
The allegations come during a national uproar over sexual harassment by high-profile leaders in entertainment and business, and many Republican senators and other officials swiftly called for Moore to drop out from the election. Others, including White House officials and Senate leaders, have equivocated.
Republicans have a only a two-vote majority in the Senate on which Trump’s agenda – including a pending tax cut bill — depends. If they do not deliver, they risk being rejected by Trump voters in the coming midterm elections.
A loss by Moore would make the Senate majority even more tenuous. But a win, some Republican strategists fear, could drag down other party nominees in next year’s elections.
A new poll Sunday showed the race in Alabama nearly tied. The Democratic nominee, Doug Jones, a former federal prosecutor who won convictions against Ku Klux Klan members for one of the most notorious crimes of the civil rights era, held a narrow lead, within the poll’s margin of error, the poll by Louisiana-based JMC Analytics found. That result would have been unthinkable just days ago in the heart of Trump country.
Moore, who enjoys folk-hero status among his most ardent supporters, has shown no signs of stepping aside despite pressure from national party establishment figures he scorns. That has left Republicans unsure of their next steps.
Some say only Trump’s influence could persuade Moore and his devoted supporters in Alabama to go in a different direction, but it remains unclear if the president would be willing to intervene. He said on his trip to Asia that he was monitoring the situation.
White House legislative director Marc Short tried to avoid committing himself Sunday.
“There’s no Senate seat more important than the notion of child pedophilia,” Short said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
“But having said that, he has not been proven guilty,” Short said, referring to Moore. “We have to afford him the chance to defend himself.”
Short and White House adviser Kellyanne Conway, on ABC’s “This Week,” both said Trump would consider the race more fully when he returns to Washington.
Even before the allegations, Moore’s candidacy had split the party into opposing camps reflective of deeper Republican divisions during the Trump presidency.
Moore’s supporters and conservative activists have celebrated his decades-long career as a controversial judge representing far-right religious views — refusing to take down a Ten Commandments display in the state courthouse, for example, and defying the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling that legalized gay marriage.
A decade ago, Moore wrote that Congress should refuse to seat Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., a Muslim, because of his religion, calling “Islamic philosophy directly contrary to the principles of the Constitution.”
This fall, former Trump adviser Steve Bannon latched on to Moore’s primary campaign against incumbent Republican Sen. Luther Strange, making it a central part of his attack on the Republican establishment.
Centrist Republicans, affluent business leaders – and, crucially, some female voters, who often tip elections nationally — don’t like from the unwanted attention Moore brought to their state, with some fearing that he would reinforce stereotypes of Alabama as a backwater.
Many of those establishment Republicans have already voted with their checkbooks, declining to fund Moore’s campaign. The National Republican Senatorial Committee backed out immediately after the allegations became public last week.
“No amount of money will be able to change – one way or the other – how people decide to vote in light of these very serious allegations,” said Chris Pack, a spokesman for the Senate Leadership Fund, which is allied with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
Moore is taking a page from the Bannon playbook in fighting back, saying the allegations first reported by the Washington Post are “fake news.”
“To think that grown women would want, 40 years later, to come right before an election,” and make such charges, Moore told supporters Saturday in Birmingham, Ala. “Unbelievable.”
But in an interview with Sean Hannity, the conservative radio host, Moore admitted that as a man in his 30s he had sometimes dated teenagers. He denied sexual contact with a 14-year-old.
Republicans are left with few options. Even if Moore were to step aside, the deadline has passed to have his name removed from the ballot for the Dec. 12 election, which is being held to replace Jeff Sessions, now Trump’s attorney general.
Some Republicans would like to see an alternative candidate wage a write-in campaign, with some fellow senators urging Strange to do so. But that might simply split the Republican vote.
“I think a write-in is something we should certainly explore. I think Luther Strange would be a strong candidate for a write-in. But a write-in is very difficult, let’s face it. So there’s no easy solution to this,” Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., said on “Meet the Press.”
Other Republican officials suggested late last week that Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey could delay the election to give them more time to push Moore out. Her spokesman rejected that idea Saturday.
(Lauter reported from Washington.)
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