Republican infighting over embattled Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore has been fueled by the national climate of strict intolerance for sexual misconduct that has arisen in the aftermath of explosive allegations against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein.
With a valuable Senate seat on the line, and wary of stoking a grassroots backlash, top Republicans might have avoided confronting Moore over allegations of sexual misconduct prior to Weinstein. Revelations about the moviemaker have spurred male and female victims to break their silence about alleged incidents of assault and harassment perpetrated by prominent figures in a number of spheres, including politics.
That gave national Republicans little choice but to quickly denounce the retired judge and ask him to withdraw from a Dec. 12 special election after seven women leveled credible allegations of sexual impropriety, with congressional majorities and governors' mansions on the line next year. Moore, 70, vehemently denies the accusations.
“We are in the midst of an intense, national conversation about how we should respect and value each other as people,” Bruce Haynes, a Republican consultant, said, explaining that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., had few options but to urge Moore to step aside, or face expulsion from Congress, as he did this month.
This is not strictly a Republican problem. Both parties could be affected heading into the midterm elections.
In the past week, two women accused Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., of groping them, one since he was elected and one before, years ago when he was still working as a comedian. Franken, a major player in the Democratic Party and one of its most effective fundraisers, is now subject to a Senate ethics investigation.
The threat to the Republicans is more immediate, however.
The Moore scandal is endangering the GOP’s hold on a Senate seat in a ruby red state in a special election three weeks from now to determine a permanent successor to Republican Jeff Sessions, who resigned in January to become U.S. attorney general. Victory threatens the rest of the party outside of Alabama. A loss would cut their slim Senate majority to 51-49.
Alabama Republicans, who, unlike McConnell, actually have the power to sideline Moore, don't appear sympathetic. As some GOP insiders in the state acknowledge, local political expediency and the Southern tradition of resisting outside interference is trumping the national party's concern that Moore could be a drag on the 2018 ticket in this new, post-Weinstein era of zero tolerance for politicians credibly accused of sexual misconduct.
"Judge Moore has put the state party in a precarious position that will have long-term ramifications,” said Joel Blankenship, a member of the Alabama Republican Party’s executive committee. “To remove him would alienate the Christian conservative wing of the party; to keep him will potentially have long-term consequences from women, young people an the business community.”
The issue is exacerbating existing intra-party tensions — between the Republican establishment and the party's grassroots; between Republicans on Capitol Hill and President Trump. He has declined to join McConnell, House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., other Republicans in Congress, and various governors, in demanding Moore step aside.
Indeed, Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway practically endorsed Moore on Monday during an interview with the Fox News Channel. “Doug Jones in Alabama folks, don’t be fooled. He will vote against tax cuts. He is weak on crime; weak on borders,” she said on “Fox and Friends.” For many in the GOP base, its another example of the party establishment standing athwart Trump — and them.
Polls show Democrat Doug Jones competitive with Moore since a Washington Post bombshell report detailing allegations of sexual misconduct from decades ago, including from a woman who was 14 at the time. Moore is the former elected chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court. He was removed from the post for refusing to enforce federal court rulings.
Leigh Corfman is the woman who was 14, two years under the age of consent, when she alleges to have had a sexual encounter with Moore, then in his 30s. The “Today Show” on NBC interviewed her on Monday morning, keeping the issue front and center for the Republicans.
Moore isn’t backing down. He has marshaled the support of Christian pastors, who have joined them in seeking to undermine the character and credibility of his accusers, and the retired judge continues to jab at McConnell on Twitter.
“They tried to rig the system against President Trump, they’re trying to do it again," Moore said on the social medium. "MAGA movement will prevail and McConnell will be sent home. Bring it, Mitch.”