“I don’t know him, I don’t know him,” said Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio).
“I haven’t taken a deep dive into his record,” said White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
“Let’s give him a chance,” said Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.).
For most Republicans, Roy Moore’s run for Senate in Alabama is a subject best avoided.
Before winning Tuesday night's primary runoff to replace Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the former judge was best known for his views that homosexuality should be illegal, that Muslims should not be allowed in Congress and that the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, were God's punishment for Americans' sins.
Yet in interviews since Moore's win, almost no elected Republican has criticized Moore or his views. They dodged most questions about him, but said they'd be eager to accept him as a fellow legislator on issues like health care and tax cuts. Moore, a well-known ideologue, had suddenly become a blank slate.
“Obviously, there are a lot of things that get said by different candidates,” said Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), the chairman of the House Freedom Caucus, in a Thursday interview on MSNBC. “I am certainly supporting him, and happy to have him in the Senate.”
Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) said Moore would fit fine within Senate Republicans’ “broad spectrum of opinion and ideology” but also cautioned against prejudging Moore based on media coverage of his beliefs.
“I have found, coming here to Washington, you see there’s an awful lot of stereotypes of individuals,” he said. “How the press portrays them is not necessarily the individual that they are.”
Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) the only Republican lawmaker to criticize Moore, did so tepidly.
“I’m obviously not enamored with his politics because that’s not the future of the Republican Party, that’s for sure,” Flake told Politico.
The arm’s-length treatment of Moore, who Republicans worried would embarrass the party, stands in contrast with how other far-right candidates have been handled. In September, North Carolina Republicans condemned a fringe candidate for mayor of Charlotte who listed being “white” as one of her qualifications. In May, after Montana congressional candidate Greg Gianforte body-slammed a reporter, a number of Republicans condemned his conduct. (Gianforte won the election, then went to court.)
Most famously, Republicans went into a full-bore panic in 2012 after former congressman Todd Akin, then a Senate candidate in Missouri, told an interviewer that women could not get pregnant from “legitimate rape.” GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney called on Akin to quit the race.
There’s no such demand being made on Moore. The party is confident about keeping the seat despite Moore’s controversies. Pressed on Moore’s record — which included being removed from Alabama’s Supreme Court twice, questioning President Barack Obama’s citizenship and falsely insisting that Islamic law is being enforced in liberal cities — Republicans have shrugged.
“I haven’t had a chance to look through all of those things,” Hoeven said Wednesday on MSNBC. “The key is going to be what he does when he comes here. Is he going to join us? Let’s give him a chance to come down and help us advance the agenda that will be good for our country.”
Portman, who in 2013 became one of very few Republicans to endorse same-sex marriage — and whose son, Will, is gay — dodged questions about Moore while suggesting that he could provide a key vote if he wins.
“He’s going to be for tax reform, I think,” Portman told Politico.
Outside of the White House and Congress, conservatives have been more critical of Moore, describing his win as one more example of the Republican Party’s base rewarding invective over ideas.
“Moore is the more Trumpian candidate, but that’s not a compliment to Moore,” wrote National Review’s Jonah Goldberg. “Moore’s M.O. is to say crazy, ill-informed, and occasionally bigoted stuff and play on populist passions.”
Gay conservatives, who were once courted by President Trump, were also offended by how quickly Republicans endorsed Moore.
“Call me selfish, but I could not justify voting for somebody who would have me incarcerated for who I am,” wrote Guy Benson, a gay conservative pundit, in a Thursday column for Townhall. “. . . Even if the Senate voted 99-1 against criminalizing homosexuality, I’d feel shame for having helped that one dissenting vote get elected.”
Democrats, who are still weighing how heavily to involve themselves in the Alabama race, took advantage of their Republican colleagues’ caution. Their nominee in Alabama, Doug Jones, did a round of interviews talking up his own record as a civil rights attorney and describing Moore as a hard-edge ideologue.
“I have a history of passion for equality, passion for fairness, and people recognize that,” Jones said in an interview on MSNBC’s “Meet the Press Daily.” “The folks down here want somebody who can reach across the aisle and talk to people.”
Other Democrats have been more adamant about condemning Moore. Rep. Terri A. Sewell (D-Ala.), who represents the distict encompassing Selma, called Tuesday night’s primary result a “wake-up call” in a Wednesday interview on CNN.
“I think that it’s really important for Alabamians to really take a hard look at who we’re sending to Congress,” she said. “I think that [Moore’s] election is definitely an indication of the fact that folks are doubling down and feeling emboldened by this president’s sort of blatant disregard for all things racist, to be honest with you.”
On Thursday, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) linked to a video that had been obtained by CNN researchers, which showed Moore blaming the 2012 shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., on Americans losing faith in God.
“Here Roy Moore says that the Newtown community is to blame for the Sandy Hook School massacre [because] they weren’t following ‘God’s law.’ Sick,” he wrote.
Democrats expected more to come — and were already getting flashbacks to the times Moore had insulted them or their constituents. In 2006, when Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) became the first Muslim elected to Congress, Moore wrote a column arguing that he should not be seated. Moore, Ellison said, was a “lawbreaker” with a shoddy understanding of the Constitution.
“We have some pretty deep-seated racial, ethnic, and religious divisions that we need to talk about,” Ellison said. “People like Roy Moore do not buy into the consensus of liberty, justice for all. He has a very clear list of people — including me — who aren’t included in the embrace of America. Look, I’m a congressman. I’m have no fear of Roy Moore. But what about all the other folks who are actually vulnerable?”