Few stories illustrate the zeitgeist of American politics and culture more clearly right now than that of the Republican Senate candidate in Alabama, Roy Moore, who is battling accusations of sexual misconduct with teenage girls.
On the level of pure politics, Alabama's Senate seat – and possibly future control of the Senate itself – hangs in the balance. “I don't see how this ends well for Mr. Moore,” says Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina, who is one of a growing chorus of senators calling on Moore to drop out of the Dec. 12 special election.
What should be a safe seat for Republicans is clearly in jeopardy, with the latest state polling showing Moore now slightly behind Democrat Doug Jones, although within the margin of error. If Moore exits the race, Republicans would likely try to rally around a write-in candidate, possibly Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who held the seat for many years. If Moore stays in the race and wins, he faces a wall of rejection in the Senate, with a top GOP leader making the extraordinary statement Monday that Moore should be expelled once he got there – something senators haven’t done to a fellow member since the Civil War.
But the Moore story touches on bigger questions than one Senate seat or even the balance of power. For one thing, the starkly different reactions to the accusations – denied by Moore but given credence by party leaders – underscore a deep division between the GOP base and the “establishment” in Washington. For Moore supporters, the accusations fall into the Trump-era vortex of “fake news,” with many discounting them as the product of a “liberal media.”
At the same time, the Moore accusations are bringing the #metoo story – the surging wave of women making public their accounts of alleged sexual abuse – squarely into the realm of politics, amid signs that a broad shift in attitudes may be occurring. Just last week, the Senate overwhelmingly passed a resolution making sexual harassment training mandatory. The House today held a hearing to review its own policies, at which several female lawmakers who had previously worked as staffers testified about their own experiences of abuse on Capitol Hill.
“There are two members of Congress, Republican and Democrat, right now who serve ... that have engaged in sexual harassment,” Rep. Jackie Speier (D) of California told the Committee on House Administration on Tuesday.
After the hearing, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R) of Wisconsin issued a statement saying,“Going forward, the House will adopt a policy of mandatory anti-harassment and anti-discrimination training for all Members and staff. Our goal is not only to raise awareness, but also make abundantly clear that harassment in any form has no place in this institution.”
The Moore allegations may even have indirect policy implications, with GOP lawmakers now feeling greater pressure than ever to pass their tax plan quickly, given the possibility that the Alabaman – or a possible write-in candidate – might lose to the Democrat in next month's election. That would bring the GOP margin in the Senate down to a single seat.
“This is not what Republicans need right now as they try to push major legislation through,” says Jennifer Duffy, who closely follows the Senate at the independent Cook Political Report.
No longer is Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky couching his view that Moore should resign his candidacy “if” the allegations raised in a Nov. 9 Washington Post story are true. On Monday, Senator McConnell said flatly: “I believe the women,” and said Moore should exit the race.
Four women told The Post of encounters with Moore when they were in their teens and Moore was in his 30s and was an assistant district attorney in northern Alabama. One episode allegedly involved a 14-year-old girl he drove to his home, where he reportedly took off his clothes and removed hers, touching her over her underwear, and guiding her to do the same over his.
A fifth woman, Beverly Young Nelson, came before reporters on Monday, accompanied by well-known attorney Gloria Allred. Ms. Nelson gave an emotional account of a sexual assault by Moore when she was 16 and working as a waitress and he was a prosecutor in Etowah County. Moore has denied the allegations.
On Tuesday, Speaker Ryan added his voice to those of Moore's critics in the Senate, calling the accounts “credible” and saying Moore should “step aside.”
Sen. Cory Gardner (R) of Colorado, who heads up the Republican senatorial campaign effort for 2018, has gone so far as to call for expelling Moore if he wins. That’s a long process, involving a Senate investigation and requiring two-thirds to agree. While the last Senate expulsion occurred in 1862, the process led to a high-profile resignation in 1995. Sen. Bob Packwood (R) of Oregon resigned the day after the Senate Ethics Committee recommended he be expelled for repeated sexual misconduct and other reasons. Senator McConnell was ethics chairman at the time.
Defenders in Alabama
But the prevailing sentiment is different in Alabama, where calls for Moore’s resignation are being dismissed by his supporters as an attempt by the media and the Washington “swamp” to drown an outsider candidate.
“I’m dead sure voting for Roy Moore,” says Shaun McCutcheon, an Alabama GOP activist and early Trump supporter who says he did not vote for Moore in the primary. But “they’ve solidified my vote,” he says in a phone interview. Mr. McCutcheon defines “they” as the “fake news” media, specifically the Washington Post and other “left-wing” outlets.
"I just don’t believe it," he says. "I think they’re trying to manipulate the election.” He says he read the original Post story, but it sounded to him like it was fabricated to meet a set of timelines. If Moore pulls out of the race, he says, it will “backfire on McConnell.”
Moore has run an anti-McConnell campaign, supported by the Great America political action committee, which is affiliated with Steve Bannon, former strategist to President Trump. Mr. Bannon has vowed to back anti-McConnell candidates in GOP primaries – including targeting some Senate Republican incumbents up for reelection next year.
“This is the world Trump has created,” says Ms. Duffy.
Duffy observes that most of the voices coming out of Alabama in support of Moore are male, and says the election in Virginia last week, where women made a strong anti-Trump showing, raises a cautionary note for Republicans. She also points to a double standard in Alabama. Last April, the state's governor resigned under a cloud of scandal after pleading guilty to abusing his office, allegedly to cover up an extramarital affair with a political advisor. “Moore supporters have ceded the ground on ever criticizing any politician for these accusations, regardless of party.”
Still, Moore’s supporters are rallying around him, pointing out the decades that have intervened since the alleged incidents and that the legal age of consent in Alabama is 16.
Others don’t buy that argument. Not Duffy, who says there’s a big difference between sex between a 16-year-old girl and an 18-year-old boy, and a girl of the same age and a man in his 30s.
Neither does Senator Graham think much of the defense.
“A newspaper article is not proof in court, but this is not a trial in court,” Graham told reporters on Monday. The behavior described by Nelson and the allegations relating to a 14-year-old are not consensual and “have the ring of truth,” he said.
Staff writer David Sloan contributed to this report from Washington.
Correction: This story has been updated to correct the number of senators needed to vote to expel a member. It's two-thirds.