Every competitive special election draws outsized attention, but few deserve it more than Tuesday’s Senate contest in Alabama. No matter the outcome, the results will reverberate loudly across the country — and nowhere more than inside the Republican Party.
The contest between Republican Roy Moore and Democrat Doug Jones is a morality play with significant political consequences. It sweeps in everything that is current — President Trump’s standing, the fractured Republican Party, the Democrats’ hopes for 2018, and above all, the issue of whether, at a time of changing attitudes, political allegiance outweighs credible claims of sexual misconduct.
Unlike in many such elections, the voting Tuesday will not end the controversy. For Republicans, that’s perhaps the most worrisome aspect. Tuesday’s results will be picked at for meaning beyond what any single election can produce, but there will be plenty in what happens worth picking at.
For Republicans, there likely can be no truly good outcome. If Moore wins, the party will have preserved the seat but will be saddled with a new senator under a cloud of allegations, including assaulting a teenager many years ago as well as a pattern of pursuing teenagers half his age when he was in his 30s. If he wins and is sworn in, he probably will face an ethics investigation that will keep the controversy alive until his fate is resolved and perhaps much longer than that. For the Republicans, it’s a hot mess.
If Moore loses, the GOP would be spared his presence in the Senate. But the result will have inflamed the anti-establishment forces led by former White House chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon, deepening antagonisms that continue to roil the party. A Jones victory also would tarnish the president, who has enthusiastically endorsed Moore and campaigned near the Alabama border Friday night in a display of that support. Additionally, a Jones victory would put the Republican majority at greater risk in 2018.
As a public figure, Moore has long been a renegade. He is a throwback to a different era and an embarrassment to many in his state. Even before the women came forward to accuse him of sexual impropriety, he was highly controversial, having twice been removed from the state Supreme Court. The first involved his resistance to an order to remove a Ten Commandments monument from the state Supreme Court building; the second was over his order to state judges not to abide by the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling that legalized same-sex marriages.
[Moore accuser alters part of her story about an inscription]
Still, Moore would be a shoo-in on Tuesday were it not for the allegations of sexual misconduct. Alabama is one of the most Republican states in the nation and is deeply polarized, red vs. blue and white vs. black. Trump won Alabama by 28 points in 2016. His campaign took flight in August 2015 when he staged a massive rally in Mobile. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, then an Alabama senator, was the first U.S. senator to endorse Trump.
Moore has a following that is unshakable, especially among evangelical Christians. In a recent Washington Post-Schar School poll that showed the overall race neck and neck, 78 percent of evangelical Christian voters in Alabama said they backed Moore’s candidacy. Among other white Christians in the state, his support was at 41 percent.
Moore’s support among Christian conservatives highlights the degree to which tribal loyalty offsets other factors in voters’ political choices. The president cast the choice in starkly partisan and ideological terms when he recently gave Moore a full-throated endorsement. In a tweet last week, he said of Moore: “We need his vote on stopping crime, illegal immigration, Border Wall, Military, Pro Life, V.A., Judges 2nd Amendment and more.”
The split within the Republican coalition is highlighted by the divergent paths taken by Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) since Moore was accused of sexual assault and impropriety.
Trump made a bad bet earlier when he was persuaded to endorse Sen. Luther Strange in the GOP primary. Now he is all in with Moore. Having been accused of sexual misconduct by multiple women during his presidential campaign, Trump has chosen to embrace another Republican facing similar charges. Shortly after his endorsement, the Republican National Committee reversed course and reentered the race on behalf of Moore after pulling out in the wake of the allegations against him.
[Democrats struggle to boost African American turnout in Alabama]
McConnell was a more enthusiastic supporter of Strange in the primary, directing money toward the Alabamian’s candidacy, but to no avail. Once the women came forward, the majority leader tried without success to force Moore to step aside. His failure once again underscored the limited power the GOP establishment has in these matters.
Unlike Trump, however, he has not moved back toward Moore in these final days. A week ago, he appeared to be softening his opposition to Moore, saying it was up to the voters in Alabama to decide whom to send to the Senate. Asked to explain that, he later told reporters, “There’s been no change of heart. I had hoped he would withdraw as a candidate. That obviously is not going to happen.” He also made clear that an ethics investigation probably awaits Moore if he wins on Tuesday. Should Moore become a senator, he and McConnell will find it difficult to coexist in the same chamber.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee and its chairman, Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado, embraced McConnell’s hands-off approach. After the RNC announced its support for Republican nominee, Gardner, who like other Republicans had called on Moore to withdraw, reiterated that the NRSC would continue to stay out of the race.
A Jones victory would give Democrats a boost in the battle for control of the Senate next year, though the path is narrow and starts with the necessity of holding every Democratic seat at stake next year, including the red and purple states Trump won in 2016.
If Democrats were to do that, they would still need to pick up a net of three more seats to gain the majority. While recent events have thrown into question such a pickup, they have two decent possibilities: in Arizona, where Sen. Jeff Flake is stepping down; and in Nevada, where Sen. Dean Heller is in trouble.
The Senate map got further scrambled in the past few days. Democrats got good news when Phil Bredesen, the former Democratic governor of Tennessee, announced that he would run for the seat of retiring Sen. Bob Corker (R). He is one of the few Democrats who might be able to win statewide in a state that has turned increasingly red and conservative.
Meanwhile, the decision by Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) to resign his seat in the face of allegations of sexual misconduct puts a Democrat seat in play next year that his party had not expected. Even the possibility of a Republican seat falling into Democratic hands in Alabama adds to the significance of Tuesday’s outcome.
On this final weekend, the race in Alabama symbolizes a Republican Party in turmoil, with Trump and Bannon pitted against McConnell and others in the GOP establishment. Trump has continued to bend the party in his direction. A Moore victory on Tuesday would add to that record of success by the president, but at a potentially sizable cost to the Republican Party.