Roy Moore arrived in the Capitol to play an unfamiliar role: Republican conformist.
By the time he left, he was once again a lightning rod for controversy.
The hard-right former judge made his second trip to Washington on Tuesday as his party’s Senate nominee in Alabama. Unlike the last time he was in town, Moore decided to mingle with the Republican establishment he has villainized on the campaign trail.
He joined Republican senators at their weekly policy luncheon. Most backed his opponent in the primary. He chatted with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), his bitter foe.
Afterward, he refrained from reiterating his criticism of the Kentuckian. Moore also dodged questions from reporters about incendiary statements he has made about a Muslim serving in Congress and gay people, declaring that he was not there to “answer any questions about issues.”
As he made the rounds, some of Moore’s potential future Republican colleagues strained to separate themselves from him. One even attacked him head-on in a speech on the Senate floor.
The visit offered a preview of the headaches Moore’s presence could cause for Senate Republican leaders should he prevail in a Dec. 12 special election to fill the seat once held by Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
“I don’t know where I’m going right now,” Moore told reporters as he exited Tuesday’s lunch and walked down a hallway near the Senate chamber before doubling back toward a bank of elevators.
Asked by one reporter whether he still thinks Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) should not be a member of Congress because he’s Muslim, as Moore wrote in a 2006 opinion piece, Moore replied, “I’ll address that later.”
Did he still think “homosexual conduct should be illegal,” as he said in a 2005 television interview?
“I’m not answering any questions on issues right now,” Moore said.
He said he spoke at lunch to McConnell, whom he has vowed to oppose as leader. But as he departed the second floor of the Capitol, he said he was “not going to give an opinion” on that matter at that moment.
Less than two hours later, Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), a frequent critic of the far-right and President Trump who is retiring at the end of this Congress, used a floor speech in favor of a conservative judicial nominee to condemn Moore.
“When the presidential nominee of my party, the party of Lincoln, called for a Muslim ban, it was wrong, and I said so,” said Flake. “When a judge expressed his personal belief that a Muslim should not be a member of Congress because of his faith, it was wrong. That this same judge is now my party’s nominee for the Senate should concern us all. Religious tests have no place in the United States Congress.”
Moore’s visit came amid an effort by Senate Republicans to criticize Democrats for what they have charged was anti-Catholic animus against judicial nominee Amy Coney Barrett, a Catholic law professor who has questioned the legal rationale behind the Supreme Court ruling on abortion in Roe v. Wade. The Senate on Tuesday confirmed Barrett to serve on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit.
Republicans have focused on Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who accused Barrett at a hearing of letting “dogma” overwhelm legal reasoning, and then expanded to attacking any Democrat who opposed Barrett.
But some of the same lawmakers lodging that complaint have not forcefully criticized Moore’s past comment about Ellison, adding awkwardness to their line of attack on the basis of religious liberty.
For some Republican senators, Moore’s appearance on Tuesday also created some discomfort.
Asked whether he supported Moore, Senate Republican Conference Chairman John Thune (S.D.) responded, “I’m hoping to meet with him while he’s up here. I haven’t had a chance to do that yet. I don’t know him.”
Like Trump and many other leading Republicans, Thune backed Sen. Luther Strange in the GOP primary that Moore won.
“He stood up and was pleasant in his comments,” said Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), recalling Moore’s appearance at lunch. But Corker wasn’t won over — and he did not want to weigh in on Moore’s controversial positions.
“I plan on staying out of the election, and the people of Alabama will determine that,” he said. “And I have nothing to do whatsoever with what’s happening in the Senate race in Alabama.”
Moore is scheduled to attend a fundraiser in Washington on Wednesday evening. An invitation distributed by his campaign this month lists the names of prominent conservative activists and senators backing his campaign, including Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah).
But in a sign that Moore may not even be on the same page as some of his allies in Washington, a spokesman for Lee said Tuesday that it was not on the senator’s to-do list.
“Tomorrow’s fundraiser is not on our schedule,” said the spokesman, Conn Carroll.