The besieged Alabama Senate candidate owes nothing to the national party.
GOP leaders desperately want Roy Moore off the ballot. But they have neither the legal nor the political leverage to force the defiant ex-judge out of the race.
The White House, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and a host of other Republican senators called on Moore to drop out of the race Thursday if there were truth to the accounts of four women who told The Washington Post that Moore pursued relationships with them while they were teens and he was in his 30s. The news sent Republican operatives scrambling to parse the dusty sections of Alabama state law that deal with replacing candidates on the ballot.
But some absentee ballots have already been sent to voters, which appears to make it impossible to install someone in place of Moore on the Republican Party line.
The election is on Dec. 12.
Apart from the legal considerations, Moore owes no loyalty to Republican leaders in Washington, who backed another candidate in the primary and spent millions of super PAC dollars to defeat him while Moore won the nomination on an anti-McConnell platform. Moore’s campaign lashed out as condemnation rained upon him Thursday, calling the story a “baseless political attack.”
“Judge Roy Moore has endured the most outlandish attacks on any candidate in the modern political arena, but this story in today’s Washington Post alleging sexual impropriety takes the cake,” Moore campaign chairman Bill Armistead said in a statement. “National liberal organizations know their chosen candidate Doug Jones is in a death spiral, and this is their last ditch Hail Mary.”
Sebastian Kitchen, a spokesman for Doug Jones, the Democratic candidate, said simply: “Roy Moore needs to answer these serious charges.”
Though Republicans have begun looking into options to replace Moore, Alabama law requires the candidate roster on the ballot to be set 74 days before an election. If Moore does withdraw, however, any votes cast for him would not count.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and other Republicans have suggested that GOP Sen. Luther Strange, the appointed senator who lost to Moore in the special primary, could put himself forward as a write-in candidate. State law bars a candidate who lost in a primary from appearing on the general election ballot as an independent, but it does not appear to forbid a write-in campaign.
“Of course it’s possible!” said Murkowski, who lost her Republican primary in 2010 but won reelection as a write-in candidate, when asked about the feasibility of such a plan.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, in a gaggle aboard Air Force One, said President Donald Trump believes that “if these allegations are true, Judge Moore will do the right thing and step aside.”
Through his press secretary, Vice President Pence echoed those remarks.
“The Vice President found the allegations in the story disturbing and believes, if true, this would disqualify anyone from serving in office,” Alyssa Farah said.
Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) said senior Republicans are still examining what, if any, options they have ahead of the special election. Cornyn and a host of other congressional Republicans had recently endorsed Moore after his primary win, when Moore defeated Strange and a field of other Republicans in the race to complete Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ term in the Senate.
“This troubling news is so recent that people are trying to understand what hit us,” Cornyn told reporters. “I think people are trying to sort it out and figure out what the appropriate response is, including Sen. Strange.”
The Washington Post reported that Moore, then age 32, initiated a sexual encounter with a 14-year-old girl in 1979. The Post quoted the woman, Leigh Corfman, as well as three other women who said in multiple interviews that Moore pursued relationships with them while they were teenagers.
Cornyn said Corfman’s willingness to go on the record about the sexual contact does not yet prove Moore’s guilt.
“If it is true, I don’t think his candidacy is sustainable,” Cornyn said. “But we believe in a presumption of innocence until proven guilty. And so I think it’s important for the facts to come out.”
Pressed by reporters on the further proof he would want to view the allegations against Moore as true, Cornyn added: “I’m interested in seeing what substantiation there is for the story.”
Earlier in the day, White House legislative affairs director Marc Short said on CNN that “there’s no path forward” for Moore if the allegations were true.
“But let’s be cautious here of allegations that arise 38 years later — and actually arise a month before Election Day,” Short said. “So I think we need to let the facts come out and find out what the truth is and go from there before we jump to conclusions.”
Short raised the possibility of legal action to get a new candidate in the race if Moore drops out.
“Remember that the president supported Luther Strange in that primary,” Short said. “I think what’ll happen is that there’s options for write-in candidates and there’s also options for lawsuits I think will arise about [the] path forward. But I don’t think we should begin going down that pathway until we give Roy Moore the chance to defend himself and defend his character.”
Other Senate Republicans had the same reaction as McConnell and Cornyn, with denunciations flying in swiftly — but often with an “if true” caveat.
“If that’s true, he doesn’t belong in the Senate,” said Sen. Richard Shelby, Alabama’s senior senator.
“The allegations against Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore are deeply troubling,” Sen. Cory Gardner, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said in a statement. “If these allegations are found to be true, Roy Moore must drop out of the Alabama special Senate election.”
As Senate Republicans grappled with a politically challenging tax bill rollout, several sidestepped questions about Moore by noting that they have not yet delved into the details of the allegations against him.
“I have seen the headlines, but I have not had the opportunity to review the specifics,” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who endorsed Moore, told POLITICO.
Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.) told reporters that “obviously this is a real concern, but before I would comment further I have to see what the facts are.”
But Murkowski was unequivocal. “I’m horrified, and if this is true he needs to step down immediately,” she told reporters.
Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey, a Republican, called the story “deeply disturbing.”
“These allegations are deeply disturbing. I will hold judgment until we know the facts,” Ivey said in a statement. “The people of Alabama deserve to know the truth and will make their own decisions.”
Both Republicans and Democrats stepped around the one other scenario that would end the GOP’s Moore problem: the chance that he could now lose the Senate race in deep-red Alabama.
Moore faces a well-funded Democratic opponent, former U.S. attorney Doug Jones, but the Republican has led in most polling, and Alabama has not elected a Democratic senator in decades.
“I don’t think it has anything to do with Doug Jones or the Doug Jones campaign,” said Alabama-based Democratic pollster Zac McCrary. “I don’t think Doug Jones or the Doug Jones campaign has any relevance to this piece of this [race] for the next month. It’s all about Roy Moore.”