The Republicans’ Problem Is Bigger Than Alabama
America’s sudden reckoning with sexual assault and the harassment of women has swept across the worlds of entertainment, media, and politics. But the cultural upheaval set off two months ago by the revelations of Harvey Weinstein’s sexual misconduct failed to reach one part of the political world: the segment of the Republican Party most vociferously supportive of Donald Trump.
Until late in the evening of Dec. 12, Roy Moore of Alabama looked as if he might ratify this strange state of affairs. His bid to fill the Senate seat vacated by Jeff Sessions became global news after the Washington Post published allegations that Moore, a former state supreme court chief justice, had sexually assaulted a 14-year-old girl when he was in his mid-30s and had routinely lurked in the local mall pursuing other teenagers.
Revelations such as these would have led to Moore’s swift ouster if he’d been a movie director or TV journalist. But Moore is a politician. He’s a member of a Republican Party that’s embraced Donald Trump, running in a state that Trump carried by 28 percentage points. That’s why, even after three weeks of wall-to-wall coverage of his sex scandal, Moore still led his Democratic opponent, Doug Jones, in most public polls and seemed poised to carry off a victory.
Moore had a survival plan. His public obeisance to Trump—encouraged by Steve Bannon, the president’s former top aide, whom Moore called his “master strategist”—was designed to ingratiate him with the sizable bloc of Republican voters still willing to countenance or ignore the kind of sexual misconduct that Trump himself once bragged about on tape. That sentiment runs strong enough in the GOP that lawmakers such as Representative Blake Farenthold of Texas, whose former staffer received a taxpayer-funded settlement after claiming sexual harassment, have kept their jobs, while Democratic counterparts like Senator Al Franken have been forced out. And no Republican lawmaker has been willing to revisit the harassment claims levied against Trump.
As Ronald Brownstein of CNN has noted, Republicans have avoided serious fallout over sexual harassment because blue-collar women—“Walmart moms,” as Democratic pollster Margie Omero dubs them—have remained loyal to Trump. In elections this year, Brownstein says, “Republicans have consistently run more strongly among white women without degrees than their counterparts with advanced education.”
Moore thought that this political immunity would transfer to him. And it almost did. He denied the allegations. Bannon and his right-wing media apparatus spun an aggressive counternarrative of lying accusers aided by a perfidious liberal press. Trump lent his full-throated endorsement and held an arena rally for Moore just days before the election. And Republican voters responded: A Dec. 3 CBS News poll found that 71 percent of likely Republican voters in Alabama thought Moore’s accusers were lying. This sentiment only intensified in the days that followed. According to exit polls, 9 in 10 Republican voters on Election Day didn’t believe the women who came forward to charge Moore. As Bannon told a roaring crowd at a rally in Fairhope, Ala., shortly before the election, “The whole thing was a setup, right?”
It turns out Alabamians didn’t buy it. In electing Jones, they showed that even deep red states and the Republican politicians who represent them won’t escape the broad reckoning over sexual harassment that’s affected every other segment of U.S. society. It’s not clear that Republicans—even those who opposed Moore’s candidacy—have understood this message.
Within the GOP, Moore’s loss immediately became a weapon in the civil war between Bannon and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. Steven Law, the head of the pro-McConnell Senate Leadership Fund, put the blame for the mess squarely on Bannon. “This is a brutal reminder that candidate quality matters regardless of where you are running,” he said. “Not only did Steve Bannon cost us a critical Senate seat in one of the most Republican states in the country, but he also dragged the president of the United States into his fiasco.”
Bannon’s team blasted McConnell for trying to force Moore out of the race, cutting off party funding long enough to cost Republicans a Senate seat that a more robust effort from the national party and its donors might have saved. As Andy Surabian, a Bannon ally and senior adviser to the pro-Trump Great American Alliance super PAC, said, “Mitch McConnell and the Republican establishment got their wish: They successfully delivered Alabama to a liberal Democrat.” A source close to Bannon added, “There will now be an even more vicious war inside the Republican Party.”
Returns in Alabama and elsewhere make clear that the Republican Party’s problems go well beyond flawed candidates such as Moore. Those GOP voters who showed up to cast a ballot for him may not have been deterred by his alleged sexual misdeeds. But what preelection polls of Republican sentiment didn’t capture was how many members of the party would decide to stay home. Many of them did. And Alabama showed that Trump’s—and Bannon’s—shrinking sphere of influence can’t overcome the countermovement of voters motivated to act against them.
Party enthusiasm was much higher among key Democratic groups than Republican ones. In several heavily black counties, turnout approached the level of a presidential campaign, while in many of the white rural areas on which Moore was depending, barely more than half of the voters who’d cast ballots in 2016 showed up at the polls. Black voters made up a staggering 29 percent of the electorate, a reflection of efforts by prominent black figures, from Barack Obama to civil rights icon John Lewis to former NBA star Charles Barkley, to fire up voters. Likewise, turnout was up in major college areas, with significant spikes in Lee County (Auburn University) and Tuscaloosa County (University of Alabama). Jones won voters under the age of 30 by 22 percentage points.
And there’s no doubt that a third critical component of the Democrat electorate—women—played a decisive role in Moore’s demise, whether they voted for Jones, wrote in an alternative candidate, or threw up their hands and decided to stay home. According to exit polls, Jones beat Moore by 17 percentage points among women, 58 percent to 41 percent, which means that women in Alabama voted more decisively for Jones than women nationally did for Hillary Clinton, who carried them 54 percent to 42 percent over Trump last year. This margin would be significant in any state, but it’s especially significant in Alabama, where it’s a sea change from 2012, the last time exit pollsters measured a statewide race in Alabama. In that year’s presidential voting, Mitt Romney beat Barack Obama among women in the state by 55 points. (In 2016 the National Election Pool didn’t conduct exit polls in Alabama because the race wasn’t expected to be close.)
After Moore’s debacle, some Republican strategists blamed the candidate. Josh Holmes, a former chief of staff to McConnell, told the Washington Post, “You could literally take any name out of a phone book except Roy Moore’s and win by double digits. And we managed to get the only guy in Alabama that could lose to a Democrat.”
But last month this same pattern of energized Democratic voter groups also defeated a thoroughly mainstream and Trump-endorsed gubernatorial nominee in Virginia, Ed Gillespie, who lost by an even wider margin. So it isn’t Moore who represents the Republicans’ biggest problem, but a different (alleged) sexual miscreant: Trump.
While Trump won’t be on the ballot next year, the bad news for Republicans is that he could well cost them control of Congress anyway. The president’s popularity with his base hasn’t translated into victories for his chosen candidates such as Gillespie and Moore. But voters who disapprove of Trump have reliably cast ballots against Republican candidates in each of the three major elections this year: In Alabama, 93 percent of those who disapproved of Trump voted for Jones; in Virginia, 87 percent voted for Gillespie’s Democratic opponent, Ralph Northam; and in New Jersey, 82 percent voted for the Democratic gubernatorial candidate, Phil Murphy.
With Moore’s loss, many Republicans will breathe a sigh of relief, knowing that even though he refused to concede on election night, he’ll soon ride his horse off into the sunset. Trump, on the other hand, isn’t going away.