It is too early to predict what effect today’s new allegations against Alabama Republican Senate nominee Roy Moore of predatory behavior toward underage girls might have on the special general election that will be held on December 12. Moore’s immediate reaction was to deny everything and claim the story was “a desperate political attack by the National Democrat Party and the Washington Post,” the media outlet that ran the story. But despite Moore’s carefully cultivated image of religiosity and moral probity (he is sometimes called the Ayatollah of Alabama), the allegations are numerous enough, detailed enough, disturbing enough, and, well, creepy enough to cause him some serious problems unless they are somehow discredited.
The alleged behavior, especially the story of the 32-year-old prosecutor whisking away 14-year-old Leigh Corfman for illicit sexual conduct after offering to “watch” her while her mother was in a court proceeding, is not the sort of thing that can be dismissed as a “youthful indiscretion” or as a product of contemporary standards of acceptable conduct. Given the multiple accusations of Moore pursuing minors during that period of his life, there’s always the chance more accusers will now come forward.
So this could well be a five-alarm political fire for the GOP in one of its strongholds. And it opens up the first realistic path for Democrats to secure control of the Senate by the end of 2018.
Thanks to his long record of hypercontroversial statements compounded by not one but two occasions on which he lost his gavel as chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court for defiance of federal law, Moore was already more vulnerable than Republicans usually are in Alabama statewide races. The current RealClearPolitics polling average gives him only a six-point lead over Democrat Doug Jones. If the new allegations aren’t dispelled very quickly, Moore could be in enough trouble to convince Democrats to make a major investment in Jones, and then anything could happen.
The emerging situation brings back memories of the Missouri Senate race in 2012, when it was widely assumed Democrat Claire McCaskill was going to lose. Then hard-right Republican Todd Akin won a complicated primary and proceeded to destroy his candidacy with ignorant and misogynistic comments suggesting rape exceptions for an abortion ban were unnecessary because “legitimate” rapes don’t cause pregnancy. For a while national and Missouri Republicans talked about substituting another candidate for the doomed Akin, but in the end they just watched him go down to defeat. Along with another favored GOP candidate who couldn’t stop saying stupid things about rape, Richard Mourdock of Indiana, Akin helped dash Republican dreams of retaking the Senate that year. And these incidents involved unfortunate words from GOP candidates. What Moore stands accused of is far worse.
This time around, if Moore craters, reducing the GOP Senate margin to 51/49, Democrats could have a real chance of winning back the Senate next year, despite only eight Republican seats being up for reelection. Jeff Flake’s seat in Arizona and Dean Heller’s in Arizona are already highly competitive. It’s finding that third realistic target that’s been tough for Democrats. But a Jones win this year would reduce the magic number to just two.
Yes, a Jones win is still a reach, and to regain the Senate Democrats would have to win a large number of races involving vulnerable members of their own party. But with what looks like a possible Democratic wave forming for 2018, the landscape may be shifting dramatically. What Democrats most need now to place the Senate in play is some luck, and the prospect of another oh-so-holy cultural conservative blowing up his campaign might be just what the donkey ordered.
And if it turns out Roy Moore is guilty of what the Post story reports, he may discover that the sin the Lord most swiftly and surely punishes is self-righteousness.
As the Post story spreads, the odds of political punishment for Moore are climbing rapidly. Mitch McConnell is saying that “[i]f these allegations are true, he must step aside.” So is Cory Gardner, chairman of the Senate Republicans’ campaign committee. John McCain is already convinced Moore should hang it up. And even Moore’s would-be Senate colleague from Alabama Richard Shelby will only say: “Let’s see how the story runs.” That’s not exactly a vote of confidence.
But it’s not like the GOP has any lively options other than hoping Moore can somehow tough it out.
Theoretically a GOP-backed write-in campaign is a possibility, but those rarely work, and there’s not an obvious substitute candidate with the name ID and party-wide support to pull it off (unless Jeff Sessions decides to surrender his Cabinet position and reclaim his old seat). More likely, if Moore is shattered by this story, it will cost the GOP a Senate seat and make 2018 more perilous.