Senate Republicans have been agonizing over the possible scenarios of dealing with Roy Moore. They are hoping the Alabama Republican will voluntarily withdraw his controversial candidacy. If Moore refuses, GOP leaders are threatening expulsion hearings once he gets to the Senate.
One scenario is not receiving enough contemplation: Sen. Doug Jones.
It is becoming increasingly plausible that the former U.S. attorney will overcome steep odds and become the first Democrat elected to the Senate by Alabama voters in 25 years. It's still too early to say that Jones is the front-runner, but what had been a fairly comfortable lead for Moore has been upended since last week's Washington Post report about allegations the former judge pursued teenage girls when he was a 30-something local prosecutor, as well as a second accusation of inappropriate sexual contact.
It may take until after Thanksgiving for polling to truly capture the state of the race, but much of the national media focus over the last week has been on Moore's very staunch defenders and their invocations of odd religious comparisons to explain away the accusations. This has helped create an assumption that there is a backlash in Alabama against the national media, boosting the Republican nominee.
So have most voters in Alabama been racing to defend Moore?
“Maybe they’re not,” said Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.), a 31-year veteran of the Senate and his state’s elder political statesman. Shelby suggested Tuesday that there were likely many voters that are “just as concerned” with Moore’s alleged behavior as there are staunch defenders of the former judge.
But Shelby said Republicans who believe the allegations are, for now, staying quiet.
In this regard, Shelby fears there is a silent majority opposed to Moore that will show up at the polls and soundly defeat him.
The next three weeks are sure to be filled with more whipsaw moments, possibly new allegations and continued GOP efforts to get Moore to withdraw from the race.
But the one certainty is that, as long as Moore stays in the race, the contest is going to continue to be a referendum on his behavior and the allegations against him — and not a referendum on the state’s traditional conservative posture and the leftward lurch of Democrats at the national level.
In essence, the more this campaign takes on the tone of a gubernatorial race, the better Jones’s chances are of winning. Those contests, in the Deep South and other conservative-leaning states, have often been at least a little more favorable for Democrats than Senate races.
That’s because the issue set is not so focused on national party platforms and more about the individual candidates and local issues. That is what happened in Louisiana’s governor’s race two years ago, when Democrat John Bel Edwards faced off against then-Sen. David Vitter (R).
That contest focused on Vitter’s personal behavior from decade-old allegations of connections to prostitute rings in Washington and New Orleans — Vitter had given only a vague apology for this in 2007 but never fully explained the situation to his constituents.
Many expected Vitter to overcome that controversy because the state is so conservative — Republican Mitt Romney won it by 17 percentage points in 2012, and President Trump won by 20 percentage points last year.
But in November 2015, Louisiana voters rejected Vitter and handed Edwards an easy victory despite the state’s normal deeply Republican voting patterns. Soon after, his political career in ruins, Vitter announced he would not seek reelection to the Senate in 2016.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), aware of the potential loss, said Tuesday that Moore’s campaign was “collapsing.”
While some have theorized that McConnell is willing to lose the seat — rather than deal with the political tumult Moore could cause in the Senate, under an almost-certain ethics investigation — the GOP leader is always most obsessed with winning and keeping the majority.
That’s why he went from having his allies and advisers whispering about the idea of Attorney General Jeff Sessions returning to Alabama to run a write-in campaign for the seat, to openly endorsing the idea at a Wall Street Journal event Tuesday.
“The Alabamian who would fit that standard would be the attorney general,” McConnell said.
But that step — which Sessions has declined to comment on — still requires Moore to voluntarily ask to withdraw from the campaign, at which point state officials would no longer count any of his votes. It would also probably require Moore to voluntarily and publicly endorse Sessions, telling his voters that they should write-in their former senator.
As of now, Moore has shown no such willingness and is instead digging in.
The question is whether he can ever refocus the race on Democratic values — Jones supports abortion rights and some restrictions on gun rights — or if the race continues to center on a debate over his own behavior.
Alabama is even a touch more conservative than Louisiana, having favored Romney by 22 percentage points and Trump by more than 25 percentage points.
But circumstances like Moore’s, when a candidate’s personal behavior is under fire, can throw races up in the air and also make turnout projections useless.
In 2012, after Republicans nominated Todd Akin, the conservative congressman from Missouri said during his Senate campaign that women rarely became pregnant from a “legitimate rape” in explaining his antiabortion stance in all circumstances.
Akin also refused to abandon the race, in part believing the state’s conservative tilt would bring him home to victory even after all the GOP committees had abandoned him. Romney went on to win Missouri by more than 10 percentage points — but Akin lost to Sen. Claire McCaskill (D) by more than 15 percentage points.
One key reason was a huge drop-off of almost 150,000 ballots from those who voted for the two major party candidates in the presidential race and in the Senate race. Some of those votes, in the Senate contest, went to a third-party candidate who was on the ballot, and some just did not vote in the race.
On Dec. 12, as of now, there are just two names on the ballot: Moore vs. Jones.
If Shelby’s fears prove true, a lot of Republican voters will simply stay home and allow Jones to score a victory.