“We’ll be opposing Roy Moore vigorously,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Thursday afternoon, less than two hours after Moore formally entered the race after weeks of hinting at the campaign.
But Moore, who had already heard the complaints from Trump and Republicans, ignored them and declared he would go on to defeat Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.) in the conservative-leaning state.
“I will run for the U.S. Senate in 2020,” Moore said at his launch in Montgomery. “Can I win? Yes, I can win. They know I can. That’s why there’s so much opposition.”
Jones narrowly defeated Moore in the December 2017 special election to fill the vacancy created when Trump tapped Jeff Sessions to be attorney general. About a month before that election, The Washington Post published accounts from four women who said Moore pursued them romantically in the 1970s when they were between the ages of 14 and 18. Moore has acknowledged contact with the women but denied any sexual contact.
Trump, who has faced his own allegations of sexual misconduct, wavered back and forth on whether to support Moore. He initially supported the appointed replacement for Sessions, Luther Strange, who lost to Moore in a GOP primary runoff. As the special election approached, Trump defied other Republicans and threw his support to Moore, only to see Jones become the first Democrat in 27 years to win a U.S. Senate seat in the state.
Republicans in Washington fear a Moore candidacy would cost them what is their most likely pickup opportunity in 2020, with Trump at the top of the ticket in a state that he won by nearly 30 percentage points in 2016.
“Roy Moore has no place in a Republican primary. He has no place as a candidate in our party. He ought to find another occupation where he has better prospects,” said Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), the party’s 2012 presidential nominee. “I do not want to see him as our nominee, and I know our president doesn’t either.”
Moore blamed his 2017 loss on a misinformation campaign called “Project Birmingham” created to help Jones, who was unaware of the effort. He said that he would have beaten Jones otherwise and that the allegations against him had “very little” to do with his loss.
Democrats treated Moore’s decision as an example of a Republican Party that is deep into the ideological fringe. “So it looks like my opponent will either be extremist Roy Moore or an extremist handpicked by Mitch McConnell to be part of his legislative graveyard team,” Jones tweeted an hour after Moore’s event.
After Jones’s victory, Trump worked to support McConnell-backed challengers to Democrats in conservative-leaning states, leading to a surprise gain of two Senate seats for the GOP in a midterm election in which Republicans were routed almost everywhere else.
Last month, Trump warned Alabama Republicans not to back Moore, tweeting that he had “NOTHING against Moore” but considered him a loser.
“Roy Moore cannot win, and the consequences will be devastating,” Trump tweeted.
Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.) said Thursday that Moore would make so many controversial statements that it would cause trouble for GOP candidates across the country.
“If he were to be nominated or were to win that race, I don’t think it would help the president,” Shelby said. “I don’t think it would help anybody running. In his own way he’d take a lot of oxygen out of the air.”
Despite Shelby’s hopes that Sessions might run for his old Senate seat, other Republicans said he was happy to be on the political sidelines after a rocky tenure as attorney general on the receiving end of Trump’s criticism for his handling of the Russia investigation.
“He doesn’t seem to be interested in coming back to the Senate,” Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) said Thursday.
Several Republicans have already announced bids, including Rep. Bradley Byrne, Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill, state Rep. Arnold Mooney and former Auburn University football coach Tommy Tuberville.
The primary will be held March 3, in conjunction with the state’s presidential primary. If no candidate gets 50 percent of the vote, the top two will advance to an April 14 runoff election.
Moore accused establishment figures such as McConnell and his deputies running the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the GOP’s campaign arm, of pushing Trump to oppose his candidacy.
“President Trump has every right to voice his opinion. I believe he’s being pushed by the NRSC,” Moore said Thursday. “I don’t know what he’s thinking, but I don’t disagree with him in lots of his policies.”
Donald Trump Jr., the president’s son, almost immediately responded on Twitter: “I can assure everyone that by running, Roy Moore is going against my father and he’s doing a disservice to all conservatives across the country in the process.”
In Montgomery on Thursday, outside the announcement hall, some Alabamians appeared ready to move on from the controversial former judge, who was twice removed for misconduct as chief justice on the Alabama Supreme Court.
“I really do think that we have better candidates in Alabama,” said Shakita Jones, a social worker in Montgomery. “I think that Alabama does not need Roy Moore.”
Nicolas Johnson, 19, a college student in Montgomery, said, “I really think to myself that this is going to be just another wasted opportunity for Republicans to really submit themselves as people that are for the people.”
Gheni Platenburg in Montgomery and Emily Davies and Scott Clement in Washington contributed to this report.