BIRMINGHAM, Ala. —Stunned Republicans began casting blame Wednesday over their failure to hold a Senate seat in the Deep South, where Alabama Democrat Doug Jones stitched together just enough support to win amid voter backlash to accusations of sexual misconduct against his firebrand GOP rival.
Even as Republican Roy Moore — down by more than 20,000 votes in Tuesday’s special election — refused to concede the race, members of the GOP began pointing fingers at one another for his defeat after being steamrolled in Virginia’s elections last month.
The recriminations highlighted the bitter divisions within the GOP that appear to be worsening as the party looks toward defending its Senate majority in 2018, a task made more difficult by Moore’s loss and an increasingly unpopular President Trump.
The blow in Tuesday’s election also highlighted voter dismay over allegations that Moore pursued romantic relationships with teenage girls while in his 30s, as well as the limits of Trump’s political influence.
Democrats celebrated their victory and called for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to delay a vote on the GOP tax plan until after Jones is sworn in.
“It would be wrong for Senate Republicans to jam through this tax bill without giving the newly elected senator from Alabama the opportunity to cast his vote,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said at a news conference on Capitol Hill. Schumer said he had spoken to Jones, but did not ask him how he would vote on the measure.
Meanwhile, Republican lawmakers, strategists and party figures picked sides: either with McConnell, who kept his distance from Moore’s campaign, or with former White House chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon, who was among Moore’s most ardent backers.
In a tweet, even Trump suggested that Moore had been a weak candidate, a tacit rebuke of Bannon's support. Trump also tried to defend his track record by saying he knew Moore would lose, though he campaigned for him in the final weeks.
“Wish we would have gotten the seat,” the president later told reporters at the White House. “I want to endorse the people that are running, but I will tell you that to me it’s very, very — just very important to get this vote,” he said, referring to the tax overhaul.
Bannon, speaking on Breitbart News radio, credited Democrats for their “ground game.”
“If you get outworked, you’re going to lose, and I’ve got to tell you, their ability to get out votes — that’s what it comes down to,” he said.
On cable news and social media, Republicans tried to explain away the loss — which will leave the GOP with just a one-seat majority in the Senate.
“Mitch McConnell should have stayed out of this race,” conservative Rep. Bradley Byrne (R-Ala.) said in an interview with MSNBC. “If he would have, we would have a Republican senator coming out instead of a Democratic one.”
Similar complaints were voiced during the Republican primary runoff in September, when McConnell supported Sen. Luther Strange (R-Ala.) over candidates preferred by conservative voters — and then convinced Trump to do the same.
Speaking for the party’s establishment wing, Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.) tweeted that Republicans must “DUMP” Bannon, who supported Moore even as other conservative Republicans abandoned him over the allegations of sexual misconduct.
"If we are to Make America Great Again for all Americans, Bannon must go!" King wrote on Twitter.
Other Republicans sought principally to defend Trump, who supported two losing Republicans during the course of the election.
"When it comes to Alabama politics Steve Bannon should have followed President @realDonaldTrump lead in supporting Luther Strange. Trump's instincts on the Alabama race proved to be correct," Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), a former Trump critic who has joined the president's fold, wrote on Twitter.
Trump’s former deputy campaign manager, David N. Bossie, suggested that the Republican National Committee should not have cut ties with Moore at one point before changing course and lending him support again earlier this month.
“This president didn’t support this candidate [Moore] in the primary,” Bossie said in an interview with Fox News. “He played the hand that was dealt to him.”
Jones's victory portended the head winds facing Republicans in the 2018 midterm elections, coming just a month after a historic Republican wipeout in the battleground state of Virginia. With Jones in office, Democrats will have a credible, if still difficult, path to retake control of the Senate two years into Trump's term.
The result could also become a factor in upcoming legislative battles, as Republicans will have one less vote in the narrowly divided Senate in 2018. Although McConnell has said that the GOP tax overhaul will be completed before the end of the year, the impact of Tuesday’s outcome on the ongoing debate is unknown.
Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.) spoke with Jones on Wednesday morning.
“The people of Alabama have spoken. Congratulations to Doug Jones. . . . I look forward to working together to do what’s best for the great state of Alabama,” Shelby said in a statement.
Moore showed no signs he would go quietly.
After the race was called by the Associated Press, Moore declined to concede defeat, saying he believed that the margin of victory could narrow enough to trigger a recount. Jones’s margin of victory was 1.5 percentage points; votes would only be recounted automatically if he won by 0.5 percentage points or fewer.
The question now is when Jones could be sworn in and how that timing would affect legislative debates on Capitol Hill.
The Alabama Secretary of State’s office said Tuesday that the election will be certified between Dec. 27 and Jan. 3, giving Republicans as little as two weeks to pass a federal budget and the tax legislation with their current 52-to-48 majority.
McConnell on Tuesday said Strange, who holds the seat now, will remain in the Senate through the end of the current session.
“Once the state certifies and sends us the paperwork, the new senator is sworn in. But since the state said they don’t expect to certify until the end of the month, and we expect to finish before the end of the month...” McConnell spokesman Don Stewart wrote in an email.
Jones kept a low public profile Wednesday morning. He planned to have lunch with his campaign staff, according to a campaign official with knowledge of his plans, and could hold a news conference later in the day.
In the end, he won about 50 percent of the vote compared with about 49 percent for Moore, with Jones benefiting from strong African American turnout and a white share of the vote about twice as large as Barack Obama won in 2008. Fifty-six percent of women voted for Jones, according to exit polls, while 58 percent of men voted for Moore. Just under 2 percent of voters in the state wrote in a third candidate.
Jones, a former federal prosecutor who made his mark convicting Ku Klux Klan members for the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, cast his campaign as an opportunity for the state to turn the page on the divisive politics of its past. He supported protecting entitlements such as Medicare and Medicaid, defended Obamacare and said he broadly supported abortion. A gun owner, he supported strengthening the background-check system.
“At the end of the day, this entire race has been about dignity and respect,” Jones said at his victory rally, a raucous celebration in Birmingham. “This campaign has been about the rule of law. This campaign has been about common courtesy and decency and making sure that everyone in this state, regardless of which Zip code you live in, is going to get a fair shake.”
The outcome of the race could have a major impact on Senate primaries in Arizona and Nevada, where Bannon and conservative activists are pushing insurgent candidates who establishment Republicans also fear will be unelectable statewide.
Bannon’s allies struck back at critics Wednesday, blaming McConnell’s lack of support for handing the seat to a Democrat. “Mitch McConnell and the Republican establishment got what they wanted tonight in Alabama,” said Andy Surabian, a former Trump White House political aide who works with Bannon. “They handed this seat over to a liberal Democrat.”
One of Moore’s accusers said the election result gave her hope.
“Roy Moore’s loss means to me the fact that Alabama is about to make some changes,” Beverly Young Nelson told CNN in an interview. “I believe it’s going to be on the positive side of things.”
Sullivan reported from Birmingham. Scherer and Viebeck reported from Washington. Weigel reported from Gadsden, Ala. David Fahrenthold, Philip Rucker and Scott Clement in Washington and Larry Bleiberg and Jenna Johnson in Alabama contributed to this report.