Republicans are bracing themselves for Tuesday’s special election for Senate in Alabama, where President Trump has gambled heavily on a victory for Republican Roy Moore in a race where either outcome has major pitfalls for his party.
“When it comes to 2018,” one Republican strategist said, “this could really be a lose-lose situation.”
If Moore loses, it will tell Democrats no area is too red to contest in next year’s midterm elections and boost their candidate recruitment. If Moore wins after multiple allegations of sexual misconduct involving girls as young as 14 when he was in his 30s, it could further tarnish the GOP brand among women and college-educated suburban voters, especially after Democrats took steps to purge high-profile sexual harassers from the congressional ranks.
Trump yet again went all in for Moore on Friday night. "We can't afford to have a liberal Democrat who is completely controlled by Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer,” the president declared at a rally in Pensacola, Fla., where Moore was not present.
"We need somebody in that Senate seat who will vote for our 'Make America Great Again' agenda, which involves tough on crime, tough on borders … building the wall, strengthening our military, continuing our great fight for our veterans," Trump said. “We want jobs, jobs, jobs, so get out and vote for Roy Moore!”
If Democrat Doug Jones wins, the narrow Senate GOP majority will be further reduced to 51 to 49. Having already gotten off to a slow start passing their legislative agenda, Republicans will have even less of a margin of error on tax reform, healthcare, spending, immigration, and judges. And they will have lost a Senate seat for which Democrats failed to even field a candidate the last time it was up (Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the winner of that election, received over 97 percent of the vote) in a state Trump won by 28 points.
It would be Trump’s second straight rebuke in Alabama, having already endorsed the losing candidate in the Republican primary even as former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon campaigned for Moore. “They're going to say, ‘Donald Trump, the president of the United States, was unable to pull his candidate across the line. It is a terrible, terrible moment for Trump,'” he said ahead of the GOP runoff in September. “'This is a total embarrassment.'”
In that contest, Trump aligned himself with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and other party leaders behind appointed incumbent Sen. Luther Strange. This time around, Trump upended an emerging Republican consensus that Moore should be disavowed by the party. Both the Republican National Committee and the National Republican Senatorial Committee yanked their support as credible accusations from women mounted and Moore’s defenses failed to reassure.
As many Washington Republicans dropped the “If true” prefix when expressing concerns about the allegations, the White House stuck to it. “As [Trump] has said and as the White House has said, we find these allegations to be troubling and concerning and they should be taken seriously,” principal deputy press secretary Raj Shah said Friday, according to a pool report. “But Roy Moore has also maintained that these allegations aren’t true and that should also be taken into account.”
Trump gradually joined Alabama Republicans in standing by Moore and the former state supreme court judge’s poll numbers improved to the point where he is a slight favorite in Tuesday’s election. The RNC followed Trump's lead and got back into the race on Moore's behalf.
Incumbent Sen. Richard Shelby was the last person to win a Senate race in Alabama as a Democrat, back in 1992. Shelby was so conservative he could seamlessly transition to being a Republican two years later and holds the seat to this day. He has said he didn't vote for Moore when he cast his absentee ballot, writing in another Republican instead.
CNN greeted the president’s endorsement of Moore with a chyron reading, “Trump endorses accused child molester Roy Moore.” This kind of imagery worries Republicans. “It’s not a good look for our party,” said a GOP operative requesting anonymity to speak candidly.
At the same time, perceptions of media bias have made many rank-and-file Republican voters impervious to the charges against Moore. They simply don’t trust the press to tell them the truth about Republican candidates. And they have an ally in the Oval Office.
The president seized on examples of erroneous reporting by mainstream media outlets. "CNN apologized just a little while ago. They apologized. Oh thank you, CNN, thank you so much," Trump said in Florida. “You should have been apologizing for the last two years.”
Skepticism of the charges against Moore increased among his supporters when one accuser admitted to writing notes near the inscription the candidate is said to have written on her yearbook — a piece of evidence that they knew each other at the time — though not forging the inscription itself.
Trump joined in this pushback as well. “So did you see what happened today? You know, the yearbook? Did you see that? There was a little mistake made. She started writing things in the yearbook,” he said. “Gloria Allred, anytime you see her you know something’s going wrong.”
It’s an approach that plays well with some of the base, but could backfire as Democrats point to their swift action against Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., and former longtime Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., to show they take accusers more seriously than Republicans, who attack the credibility of such women — including the women who have leveled accusations against Trump himself.
The exposure of more bad behavior in Washington is likely to be expedited next year by media investigations and congressional probes. The various sexual harassment settlements on Capitol Hill could be the next House banking scandal, which was wide-ranging and bipartisan — but redounded mainly to the benefit of the party out of power by contributing to the sense that the nation’s capital was out of control.
A Moore win could also force Senate Republicans into a messy ethics investigation, in which the newly elected senator is questioned under oath about the accusations, at a time when they would prefer to concentrate on finishing their legislative business in what could be the final year of unified GOP control of the government until at least 2021.
Democrats have a strong chance to retake the House in next year’s elections, a possibility they consider more likely if they can use Moore the senator as a weapon against Republican incumbents.
Moore’s election would further complicate the Democrats’ already narrow path to a Senate majority, however. It would suggest that in the red states that dot the 2018 Senate map, it is difficult for Democrats to break through even if there is a contentious, Bannon-inspired Republican primary — and even if the eventual winner of that primary is a deeply flawed candidate.