Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., is navigating rocky shoals as he moves to protect the Republican Party from the taint of Roy Moore, under fire for multiple sexual misconduct allegations, risking a grassroots backlash in Alabama that could elevate the retired judge to the Senate.
Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado, who as the Senate GOP campaign chief works in tandem with McConnell, issued a statement on Monday urging the full Senate to expel Moore from Congress if he defeats Democrat Doug Jones in a December special election. McConnell and a burgeoning list of Republicans, on Capitol Hill and nationally, were calling for Moore to exit the race as his accusers grew and new allegations surfaced.
Moore, 70, is facing accusations that he engaged in sexual relations with teenage girls 40 years ago, at least one of whom was 14, with a fifth accuser alleging sexual assault this week. According to a new report late Monday, Moore was allegedly banned from a local shopping mall in the 1980s because of complaints that he was harassing young girls.
Yet GOP leaders' attempt to create distance between the party and Moore, to shield Republicans on the midterm ballot, was in danger of boomeranging with Republican voters in Alabama.
"That weighs on some of the messages that we send, but at some point, if you're a leader, you share your thoughts," said Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D. "That's what the leaders are doing right now — they're sharing their thoughts, in a very honest and forthright manner, recognizing that there's risk involved in doing so."
Moore is aligned with Steve Bannon, the former adviser to President Trump who is on a mission to upend the Republican establishment and oust McConnell from leadership.
Bannon is stoking grassroots unrest with party leaders in Congress and many activists on the Right who share Bannon's opposition to McConnell and the party elites. Bannon's crowd view top Republicans’ growing opposition to the embattled Moore as a power grab after their preferred candidate, the appointed Sen. Luther Strange, was defeated by the retired judge in a September runoff.
That frustration with Washington could be enough to propel Moore past his political problems in Alabama, a deep red state and hotbed of anti-establishment fervor. Even a request by Trump, popular in Alabama but whose endorsement of Strange in the primary was ignored by Republican voters, might not be enough to push out Moore.
“What we’re witnessing is a coup right in front of our eyes,” Dean Young, Moore’s close friend and political adviser, said in a telephone interview with the Washington Examiner, revealing the campaigns intent to harness voters' feelings of anger and suspicion to weather the storm.
Young said unequivocally that Moore would not exit the campaign, not even if Trump asked him to. “Everybody, including the president — they know that Judge Moore is not going to get out of this race and it doesn’t matter, all these false accusations that keep coming.”
Moore, who is vehemently denying all of the accusations, is no stranger to controversy.
He was removed as the chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court twice for ignoring federal court rulings that ran afoul of his conservative and religious principles. He has suggested homosexuality should be illegal and that Muslims should not be allowed to serve in Congress.
That was problem enough for many Republicans in Washington, who feared they had another Todd Akin on their hands. A Missouri congressman running for Senate in 2012, Akin denied that pregnancy was possible in cases of "legitimate rape." He lost to Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and caused endless problems for other Republicans running that year.
Four weeks before Alabama votes in a special election to determine the right to finish the Senate term won by Republican and now-Attorney General Jeff Sessions in 2014, Moore is facing allegations that he targeted teenage girls for sex when he was in his 30s.
On Monday, a fifth woman alleged that during the same period four decades ago, Moore sexually assaulted her. Notoriously deliberate, the episode forced McConnell’s hand. Several Republicans the Kentuckian leads in the Senate are genuinely repulsed.
However, the majority leader also has to consider that female voters could abandon Republican candidates in 2018 if the party is deemed insensitive to sexual harassment and soft on sexual predators.
“I would hope that Roy Moore is not the face of the Republican Party,” Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., said. “If this keeps up, it would be irreparable damage” to the party.
“McConnell absolutely had to repudiate and denounce Moore. There’s too much risk to staying on the sidelines and waiting for another shoe to drop,” added a Republican strategist, who requested anonymity in order to speak candidly.
“If the risk of doing the right thing involves an insurrection from a bunch of voters angry at the world, so be it. The greater risk is the loss of voters sickened by his behavior,” the Republican strategist said.
Moore's lead in the polls was solid and steady until late last week, when the first allegations broke in a bombshell Washington Post report. The fifth accuser went public Monday in a news conference with liberal lawyer activist Gloria Allred. Fresh polls of the race now show a tossup, with Jones narrowly leading in some of them.
McConnell’s allies are blaming Bannon and saying that he should do something to fix the problem and ensure that the Republicans don’t lose a Senate seat to the Democrats. Bannon endorsed Moore in the runoff campaign over the McConnell-backed Strange and is using the media organ he runs, Breitbart News, to attempt to discredit Moore’s accusers and in general boost his candidacy.
A spokesman for Bannon did not respond to a request for comment.
“The first person who should step up to fix a problem that he helped to create is Steve Bannon,” said Chris Pack, a spokesman for Senate Leadership Fund, the McConnell-affiliated super PAC.
Al Weaver contributed to this report.