FAIRHOPE, Alabama — In one week, Alabama Republicans would learn whether Roy Moore, their embattled nominee for Senate, could overcome allegations of sexual assault and win a special election.
On Tuesday night, Stephen K. Bannon came to Alabama bearing good news: Roy Moore had already won.
“This whole thing was a setup, right?” Bannon said to hundreds of Moore supporters crammed into a barn near Alabama’s Gulf Coast. “Even Chuck Todd of NBC, of Matt Lauer fame — he said it looked like a coordinated hit. Because Mitch McConnell’s out 47 minutes later, saying Roy Moore should drop out. Well, Mitch McConnell said on Sunday, ‘Let the people of Alabama decide.’ ”
Bannon, President Trump’s former chief strategist, who left the White House in the summer and reassumed control of Breitbart News, described a Washington that had been humbled by Moore’s refusal to quit the race and by Republicans’ refusal to believe the mainstream media.
In their speeches, Moore, Bannon and the candidates’ most loyal local surrogates demonstrated how they had reframed the race. It had become less a contest of candidates and more a way to beat the “establishment” — by giving Trump another vote in the Senate.
He hinted at more insurgencies to come and attacked Mitt Romney for serving as a Mormon missionary “while guys were dying in rice paddies in Vietnam.” The remark, seemingly prompted by a Romney tweet criticizing Moore, pulled Alabama voters into the potential battle Bannon could wage to prevent Romney from seeking a Senate seat in Utah if Republican Sen. Orrin G. Hatch retires.
The rally, which had been planned before Trump officially endorsed Moore, became an epilogue to Moore’s successful Republican standoff. As Bannon spoke, with rain beating down on the barn, the Republican National Committee was sending $170,000 to the state GOP, reversing a three-week-old boycott of Moore, who faces Democrat Doug Jones in the Dec. 13 special election. (RNC chairwoman Ronna Romney McDaniel is Mitt Romney’s niece.)
Tuesday’s rally, which drew several hundred voters to a safely Republican county, felt more like a presidential visit than a Senate rally with the star of Breitbart News. (Trump, who will visit Florida’s Gulf Coast on Friday, is not expected to campaign in Alabama.)
A large security perimeter protected Moore and Bannon from anyone who lacked a “backstage” badge. U.S. and European TV crews roamed the grounds of Oak Hollow Farm, asking voters whether they believed the women who accused Moore of pursuing them when he was in his 30s and they were teenagers. Some have accused Moore of unwanted sexual advances.
The TV crews came away with a familiar answer: that Moore’s accusers could not be trusted or that they might even have been paid to slander a decent man. John Sowell, surrounded by cameras as he and his wife, Abigail, distributed homemade Moore signs, explained that Alabama residents simply did not behave as crudely as Moore’s accusers claim he did.
“They say this happened in the 1970s, and back in those days, a man would not force a woman’s head down toward his crotch,” said Sowell, 69. “We’re not as sexually liberal as a lot of the country. When one of those women said that, I knew it was a lie.”
In interviews, Moore’s supporters were not just skeptical of the allegations but aware of theories that the Moore campaign and conservative media had circulated to discredit them.
That was a victory for Bannon and Breitbart News, which had responded to the story in The Washington Post in early November about Moore’s first accusers by dispatching reporters to Alabama to write a counternarrative.
Bannon, who had said he hoped Moore would become the first in a wave of insurgent 2018 candidates, did not say much about the race at first. Throughout November, Breitbart News published stories about Moore’s accusers and the smaller details of their stories that the campaign would cite to blunt the allegations.
On Tuesday night, Bannon, making explicit what Republicans had begun to say quietly, said Moore’s tumble and subsequent fightback echoed what had happened to Trump in the final month of the 2016 election.
“Stephen K. Bannon stood with President Trump. He didn’t jump ship,” Moore adviser Dean Young said, clearly referencing the “Access Hollywood” video published by The Post during the presidential campaign in which Trump was recorded talking about groping women.
Like Trump, whose fightback had been led by Bannon, Moore’s allies took shots at the media lined up to cover them.
“It’s not working, fake media,” said Young, pointing to the two dozen cameras at the back of the rally.
Bannon went further, joking that a heckler who briefly interrupted him — only to be marched out by a large security detail — was a “CNN producer” who had come unhinged. In a 30-minute speech, which included criticism of Mitt Romney and mockery of a donation by Republican Sen. Jeff Flake (Ariz.) to Moore’s Democratic opponent, Bannon put the attacks on the media in a larger context. The press, he said, would not cover the president’s clear and undeniable successes.
“The physical caliphate of ISIS has been destroyed,” said Bannon, using a different name for the Islamic State. “Unemployment, 17-year low. Black unemployment, 16-year low . . . if Barack Obama had done that, they’d have given him another Nobel Prize.”
As Obama found out, in two disastrous midterms, voters can be hard to sell on the idea of giving a president more support in Congress. In Washington, Republicans have grown increasingly nervous that Trump’s low approval ratings and lack of support for the party’s agenda on taxes and health care would lead to a midterm voter backlash.
In Alabama, Bannon and Moore argued that failing to turn out would effectively hand power back to the people Trump was fighting. Jones, Bannon said, was a “Hillary Clinton globalist.” Trump’s Republican critics were “trying to nullify the 2016 election” by allowing probes of his campaign to continue.
When he took the stage, Moore attacked Jones as a “Clinton appointee and Obama delegate” — both accurate statements, as Jones was confirmed as a U.S. attorney during President Bill Clinton’s second term and Jones was a delegate for Obama in 2012. The candidate was often as discursive as Bannon, at one point arguing that Republicans had achieved little in 2017.
“We still have NAFTA. We still have CAFTA,” he said, referring to the North American and Central American free trade agreements. “We still have no wall.”
Moore, who became an icon on the religious right by refusing to remove the Ten Commandments from a public display, crackled to life when attacking Jones on social issues. In a vague reference to Jones’s ads, which have accused Moore of dodging real issues, Moore said the Democrat was out of touch.
“Transgender bathrooms — that’s a kitchen table issue,” Moore said.
Moore, who had refused to debate Jones even before becoming mired in scandal, got louder applause when he attacked congressional Republicans for not being loyal to voters. Bannon returned to the theme again and again, as voters shouted out the names of Republicans — McConnell, Sen. Richard C. Shelby (Ala.), House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (Wis.) — who had not been faithful to Trump or Moore.
“You’re not going to be able to walk away, Mitch,” Bannon said. “The folks of Alabama were always going to decide this. We know what changed your mind. The polls came back.”