The excruciating situation facing the Republican Party in the case of its Alabama special Senate election nominee Roy Moore demonstrates why carefully vetting candidates is so important. Moore stands accused of behavior — illegal and also disturbingly creepy — that in any normal circumstance would be disqualifying for anyone running for dogcatcher, much less the U.S. Senate. But the allegations are arising not only after Moore won the GOP nomination for the seat, but after the statutory deadline for withdrawal or replacement of nominees had passed, and after absentee and military ballots with Moore’s name on them were mailed out.
There is a remote legal argument based on a New Jersey precedent that might theoretically let the courts strike down the deadline and allow the GOP to replace Moore, but it’s a real reach, and would almost certainly require that Moore cooperate by withdrawing his candidacy (which would have the affect of making votes for him null), something he currently shows no signs of doing. And the time for such chicanery is probably past.
So the only practical option for Republicans who are either convinced Moore will lose to Democrat Doug Jones or are alarmed at a man like this entering the Senate under their auspices is to back a write-in candidate. And that’s where the bitter divisions that wracked the Alabama GOP before this nightmare erupted make any path to redemption extremely difficult.
When the Post story broke, there was immediate talk about Luther Strange, who currently occupies the Senate seat to which Moore aspires, running as a write-in candidate (he apparently spoke with Lisa Murkowski, who won reelection as a write-in candidate in 2010 after losing the GOP primary about her experiences). On paper, it makes sense: Strange was the runner-up for the GOP nomination, and would presumably be acceptable to his former backers Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump. Yes, there’s a “sore loser” law in place that would prevent Strange from running on another party’s ballot line, but that doesn’t apply to write-in candidacies.
But the real problem is that Big Luther is very unpopular in Alabama, and has perceived ethics issues that are very different from those Moore now faces, but are real and compelling nonetheless. Even if Roy Moore is otherwise inclined to get out of the way of a write-in campaign to replace him, yielding to Strange might be too much to expect of him. Even as an unopposed GOP candidate Strange might well lose to Doug Jones; and if a defiant Roy Moore is still in the race, a Strange candidacy would simply split the GOP vote and all but guarantee a Democratic win.
There are no other obvious candidates for the perilous mission of a write-in candidacy. An obscure businessman named Mac Watson fortuitously announced an independent write-in candidacy two days before the Post knocked Moore off his stride, but it’s unclear he’ll be taken more seriously. Third-place primary finisher Representative Mo Brooks has been mentioned as a write-in candidate, too, but he’s currently trying to hold onto his House seat next year, and if possible, he’s even less acceptable to Mitch McConnell than Moore.
The bigger problem with all these write-in scenarios is that Moore and his allies are hanging tough, even as the time for such disparate measures to eclipse him come and go.
A good sign of the resistance to Moore’s removal is his continuing backing from Donald Trump’s 2016 Alabama campaign co-chairs. Perry Hooper, who backed Strange in the primary, called the allegations against Moore “just a bunch of bull,” and rather inadvisably suggested they were “the same campaign issue the left ran against Donald Trump on.” State representative Ed Henry went further, calling for the prosecution of Moore’s accusers on grounds that if their allegations are true they hid crimes for decades.
Aside from these opinion leaders, Moore famously has a devoted following in Alabama that has stuck with him through constant controversies, one removal from office, and another suspension from the same office. If he wants to stay in this race, he can, and for all we know the GOP’s best option is to count on the partisan proclivities of Alabamans to carry the day over Jones. In that scenario, Republicans could figure out what to do with Moore later, once the Senate seat was securely in their hands.
Is there anyone with the stature in Alabama GOP circles who could push Moore aside, run a competent write-in campaign, and beat Jones? As I suggested during a New York chat yesterday, there is one such person: the man whose seat this contest is being held to occupy, Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Chuck Todd and an MSNBC panel seemed to agree with the notion of Sessions as a possible long-shot solution. And the biggest fan of this idea might be Sessions’s current boss. Nobody knows what Sessions himself thinks. But the immolation of the Alabama Republican Party and the impending loss of a Senate seat the GOP can ill afford to lose (particularly with a crucial tax bill possibly coming to the floor about the time Alabama’s next senator is sworn in) could be a fine excuse for the former senator to make a strategic retreat to his old job.
That’s a long shot, but that’s all the GOP has left.