Alabama Senate Race Exposes Deep Rift Within Republican Party

  • GOP confronts allegations of sexual contact with teenagers
  • Outcome of GOP fight may influence battle to control Congress

Roy Moore Stages Comeback in Close Alabama Senate Race

The U.S. Senate contest in Alabama is shaping up as a flashpoint in a war among Republicans over the future of the party -- forcing them to consider whether they’re better off electing a candidate accused of sexually assaulting a teenager or a Democrat.

Alabama voters’ decision Tuesday between Republican Roy Moore, a former Alabama supreme court judge, and Democrat Doug Jones, who served as a U.S. attorney in the state, is bound to reverberate through contests in next November’s midterm elections, which will determine whether the GOP maintains control of the House and Senate to help carry out President Donald Trump’s agenda.

Some traditional establishment Republicans fear electing Moore -- accused of initiating a sexual encounter with a 14-year-old, sexually assaulting a 16-year-old, and romantically pursuing other teenage girls when he was in his 30s -- will taint GOP candidates in other states. Moore’s supporters are willing to overlook the allegations or accept the candidate’s repeated denials if it means putting a solid conservative in office instead of a Democrat.

Emily Klein, a 60-year-old homemaker from Foley, Alabama, said it’s a choice between “someone who may have wanted to have found a wife or someone who supports abortion on demand.” She said she’s upset that Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky has denounced Moore and called him to bow out as a result of the allegations, first reported by the Washington Post.

“I thought, ‘How do you know it’s true? You’re just going to affect a whole election of the state of Alabama by accusations from the Washington Post?’” she said.

Trump’s former strategist, Steve Bannon, helped Moore defeat incumbent Republican Luther Strange in a GOP runoff and was in Alabama this week to bolster the candidate before next Tuesday’s vote. Strange had been backed by McConnell, Trump and other national GOP leaders. While McConnell has kept his distance, Trump this week endorsed Moore and ordered the Republican National Committee to help fund his campaign.

Bannon and groups such as the Senate Conservative Fund are trying to push aside a number of Republican incumbents in their 2018 primary contests and replace them with more conservative newcomers.

Taking Risks

A general-election win by Moore -- who has repeatedly belittled McConnell -- could boost those efforts at a time when Bannon and his allies are struggling to recruit strong candidates. However, a Moore loss in a solidly Republican state will help McConnell and other establishment Republicans make a stronger case about the risks of nominating candidates whose views or behavior are outside the mainstream.

“The war within the Republican party continues to rage on,” said Nathan Gonzales, editor of the non-partisan Inside Elections newsletter, who says the Alabama contest has emerged as one of the toughest in the broader fight.

Moore, 70, has long been controversial. He was twice removed as chief justice of the state supreme court, once in 2002 for refusing to remove a statue of the Ten Commandments from the state judicial building and again in 2016 for ordering probate judges to ignore the U.S. Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage.

Moore has lost ground in polls since allegations of sexual misconduct, and Jones has gained a significant funding advantage as Democrats started pouring money into the race that suddenly seemed winnable. Still, Moore remains ahead of Jones by about two percentage points in an average of statewide polls compiled by Real Clear Politics.

Democrats’ Victories

To emphasize the danger of Bannon’s crusade, McConnell has repeatedly pointed to Senate contests since 2010 that Democrats ultimately won after a handful of Tea Party-backed challengers overtook GOP party favorites in their primaries.

Those include: Todd Akin of Missouri, who repulsed voters with talk about “legitimate rape”; Richard Mourdock of Indiana, who said pregnancy from rape is “something that God intended to happen”; Christine O’Donnell of Delaware, who said she’d dabbled in witchcraft; and Sharron Angle of Nevada, who said Sharia law -- Islamic religious law -- had taken over several U.S. cities.

A loss by Moore would give the GOP only a one-seat majority in the Senate. What’s more, two retiring Republican senators -- Jeff Flake of Arizona and Bob Corker of Tennessee -- are increasingly willing to go their own way on key votes, with Corker last week voting against the party’s tax-cut bill.

Republican Advantage

Republicans still have an advantage in next year’s Senate elections because Democrats are defending 25 Senate seats, while just eight Republican seats are on the ballot. For many GOP senators, their biggest risk of defeat comes from a well-financed and organized primary challenge from the right. The GOP has a more commanding advantage in the House, where Democrats have a longer reach to gain control.

There are parallels between Moore’s race and last year’s election of Trump. Both men campaigned against the Republican establishment and were criticized by party leaders over reports of about their treatment of women.

Trump was caught on tape in 2005 speaking to Billy Bush, then a host of “Access Hollywood,” recounting how he made sexual advances toward a married woman. "When you’re a star they let you do it. You can do anything," he said. "Grab them by the p---y." The tape became public during the presidential campaign.

GOP ‘Cowards’

Bannon told Moore supporters Tuesday in Fairhope, Alabama, that Republicans who criticized Trump after the tape was released are “cowards.”

“They ran for the hills,” Bannon said. “They’ll never have your back, they’re only using your vote to keep their power, make their money.”

Bannon spent more time at the Alabama rally attacking other Republicans than Jones. He mocked Flake for writing a $100 check to Jones that the senator tweeted with the message “Country over Party.” He also attacked former GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney, a potential candidate for Senate in Utah, of hiding behind his Mormon religion to avoid military service. McConnell, Bannon said, would be held accountable for his disloyalty to Moore.

The audience suggested other Republican politicians for him to criticize: House Speaker Paul Ryan, Arizona Senator John McCain and Alabama Senator Richard Shelby, who said last week he voted by absentee ballot for someone other than Moore.

“If I had to go through every weak-willed individual up on Capitol Hill we’d be here all night,” he said.

Nominating Losers

McConnell dismissed Bannon’s comments, saying Wednesday on the Hugh Hewitt radio show “he’s a specialist in is nominating people who lose.”

Along with Flake, other prominent Republicans have stepped up their denunciations of Moore as the election nears. John Weaver, a vocal Trump critic and former McCain adviser, said he and four other Republican campaign veterans were donating to Jones. “We’re doing this to put America first, but also to save the GOP,” Weaver said on Twitter.

In interviews, Alabama Republicans who support Moore said the timing of accusations against him are suspicious and inconsistent with his character. Even if the accusations were proven, some said they’d still back him.

Adam Topolnicki, a 58-year-old construction business owner from Fairhope, said after Tuesday’s Moore rally that the national party is undermining Trump’s agenda.

“These people, in my opinion, are low-lives and have no right to be representing the American people,” he said of GOP leaders in Washington. “These people don’t represent us.”

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