Dilemma? Catch-22? Hobson’s choice? They’re all good ways to say why Republicans are so anguished over next week’s special Senate election in Alabama.
Is it better for their candidate, Roy Moore, who has been credibly accused of sexually abusing underage girls, to win and keep the party’s slim Senate majority? Or would he be such an albatross, causing bitter intra-party schisms, that it’s actually better for Republicans if the Democrat, Doug Jones, wins?
“We don’t need a liberal person in there, a Democrat,” President Donald Trump said in embracing Moore. Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, offers the other view: If Moore wins, Gardner has said, “The Senate should vote to expel him, because he does not meet the ethical and moral requirements of the United States Senate.”
Moore is slightly ahead, according a recent CBS poll. The seat is held by Luther Strange, who was defeated by Moore in a September primary after being appointed when Jeff Sessions stepped down to become attorney general. The winner of the Dec. 12 election is slated to take Strange’s place immediately.
A few Republicans have come out against seating Moore, demanding a new election. That might present legal challenges. The political problems would be worse.
Count on Trump to demand that Moore be seated because Republicans need the vote in a Senate where they now hold only a two-vote majority. He’ll certainly gin up his base and the religious right, the core of Moore’s support despite the charges of depravity. They would rise up in fury against the anti-Moore Republicans. It would be ugly, exacerbating tensions between Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
An alternative if Moore wins is to send the issue to the Senate Ethics Committee. It’s already looking into the sexually inappropriate behavior of Democratic Senator Al Franken of Minnesota, who has apologized after four women accused him of unwanted kissing and touching.
Moore, 70, is an ultra-right former chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, who was kicked off the bench twice for disobeying the law. He denies all the charges against him, claiming they were ginned up by lesbians, socialists and other leftist anti-Trump factions.
But eight women have come forth to describe similar conduct by Moore decades ago, and their accounts have been supported by reporting in the Washington Post and Alabama outlets. One woman said she was sexually assaulted by Moore when she was 14.
If it’s really a left-wing plot, it’s been joined by some unusual co-conspirators, including McConnell, who declared last month, “I believe the women.” Alabama’s conservative Republican governor, Kay Ivey, said there is no reason to doubt the women’s accounts, and the conservative Republican senior senator, Richard Shelby, said he couldn’t vote for Moore and would write in another candidate on his ballot.
Some Republicans hope that the sexual harassment charges against Democrats like Franken will limit the damage if Moore wins and is seated. But the specific charges, preying on underage girls, make that unlikely. Democrats would hang the judge around Republican candidates next year.
For moral and political reasons, some Republicans conclude that it would be better if the Democrat Jones, a moderate former prosecutor, wins.
That would be a nightmare for McConnell. It would reduce his Senate margin so he could only afford to lose two Republicans instead of three on most votes. That’s a big difference, especially given the panic likely to set in among elements of the party if they lose in deep red Alabama after Democratic gains in elections around the country four weeks ago.
Moreover, it threatens their majority after next year’s elections, which once seemed secure because the vast majority of contested seats are held by Democrats, some in strong Republican states. But with the unpopularity of Trump, these dynamics have changed.
Whatever the outcome, there will be no joy among Republicans as they watch the returns from down South next Tuesday.
Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the executive editor of Bloomberg News, before which he was a reporter, bureau chief and executive Washington editor at the Wall Street Journal.