This week, Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley (R) denied having an affair with his top adviser. But in the face of pretty damning evidence otherwise, it takes a big leap of faith to take Bentley at his word.
That leap may be too long for Alabamians — and, notably, Bentley's allies, many of whom are running from him as fast as they can. That leaves an isolated Bentley facing a battle on several political and legal fronts. And it's hard to see how he comes out of this intact.
Just three days after the scandal broke wide open, a significant number of Republican lawmakers have suggested the governor needs to go. Some are pursuing creating a recall method for the governor, and still others are asking the state's attorney general to launch a legal investigation into whether Bentley conducted an affair using state resources. At least one analyst predicted the salacious scandal will drop Bentley's approval ratings plenty in a state that prioritizes moral integrity. Plus, there's an irony factor, said Richard Fording, the chair of the University of Alabama's political science department.
"One thing he had going for him after he was elected is at least people thought he was a man of integrity," he said of the governor who was married for 50 years before his recent divorce. "That is all gone now."
Exhibit A in Bentley's struggles: State Rep. David Standridge (R), a confidant of the governor, posted a scathing statement on Facebook in which he called for Bentley to resign. It says, in part:
Governor Bentley has violated the trust placed in him by the people of this great state, myself included. ... By his own admission, his actions have been harmful to the people of this state. He has exhibited an error in judgment, and a blatant disregard and lack of respect for the office which he holds and the people he represents.
State Sen. Shay Shelnutt (R) said the governor should resign "immediately":
"I believe his credibility and ability to work legislature has been jeopardized beyond repair and will continue to erode as facts and perception of the facts continue to emerge from his indiscretion with Mrs. Mason. I would ask that he put the citizens of Alabama and the state he loves first and resign immediately.”
Rep. Will Ainsworth (R) is leading the charge to set up a recall method, which does not exist for statewide officials. Ainsworth noted that the governor removed Confederate flags from a memorial at the Capitol last year because it was a distraction.
"If flags that flew quietly for decades were considered a distraction that needed to be removed, the governor's nationally televised staff romance is proving to be an even larger distraction that should probably be removed, as well," he told AL.com, which first reported on the affair allegations Tuesday.
And really, Alabama Republicans have little to lose by cutting Bentley loose so quickly and, you could argue, so harshly. They say the governor was already politically damaged after pushing for a tax increase two months after campaigning on no new taxes. The two-term governor's favorability ratings among likely Republican primary voters went from 80 percent during his reelection campaign to 50 percent during budget clashes with the state legislature.
After they distance themselves from Bentley, the party isn't losing too much sleep about how their governor's fall from grace will affect its long-term success, either. Republicans are pretty much the only game in town in this deep-red state, so it's not like a Democrat could sweep in and take the governorship when or if Bentley steps down or is recalled. Plus, Republicans have a pretty deep bench they can pull from to replace him if the legislature decides to set up a method to recall statewide officials.
Even if Bentley stays, it's arguably not that big of a deal for his party. A weakened Bentley means a strengthened state legislature in a state that already gives its statehouse lots of power.
Bentley appears to be digging in his heels to fight these allegations; his spokeswoman said Thursday he is not resigning. But because it's all too easy for his party to kick him to the curb on this, it looks like Bentley has got a long, lonely walk ahead of him to survive this.