Alabama Senate: Republicans Aim To Avoid Moore Headaches

by Leah Askarinam June 20, 2019 · 3:41 PM EDT

Republicans in Washington are working overtime to make sure Roy Moore isn’t the party’s Senate nominee again. But even though it might get uncomfortable for the GOP, Moore shouldn’t be dismissed in the primary or general elections.

Republican Richard Shelby, Alabama’s senior senator, got ahead of Moore’s Thursday Senate announcement, making his own declaration that he would not support the twice-ousted state Supreme Court justice if he chose to run again. That’s no surprise, considering Shelby didn’t vote for Moore in the 2017 special election to fill Jeff Sessions’ seat.

But while some Republicans walked away from Moore a couple years ago, this time around, if Republicans lose a Senate race in Alabama, Sen. Mitch McConnell could also lose his majority. Republicans can distance themselves from Moore in the primary and even the primary runoff, but the party will be due for some serious soul searching in the event that Moore becomes the GOP nominee to take on Democratic Sen. Doug Jones.

To avoid that headache, Republicans have adopted the credo “anybody but Roy Moore,” according to a Republican strategist, arguing that Moore will face increased resistance from Republicans in Alabama and in Washington, DC. Two other Republican strategists agreed that Moore could still be strong in a multi-candidate field, meaning he’s positioned to progress to the runoff, but that his low ceiling among Alabama Republicans will likely prevent him from winning a one-on-one matchup.

Even if Republicans are headed toward a crowded GOP primary next year, the nominee eventually has to surpass the 50-percent mark. Moore received a plurality of the vote in the 2017 primary with 39 percent — against appointed-Sen. Luther Strange (33 percent) and Rep. Mo Brooks (20 percent). One month later, Moore defeated Strange in the primary runoff, 55-45 percent.

While the circumstances surrounding his nomination in 2017 aren’t easily replicable, Moore’s win in the primary wasn’t a fluke either. He leveraged his core supporters and tapped into anti-establishment fervor.

Moore’s strength was an unwavering base, which showed up to support him in 2017 when other voters were less excited about the alternative: Strange, who was perceived to be part of the political establishment after he was appointed to the Senate by scandal-plagued Republican Gov. Robert Bentley. Miscommunication between President Donald Trump and McConnell also hurt Strange, who received support from the majority leader and his aligned super PAC, according to one Republican.

But even with a firm base of supporters, Moore has lost two statewide primary races before, when he ran for governor in 2006 and 2010. And this time around, Moore won’t have support from Senate Conservatives Fund, which endorsed him in the special election primary runoff but is supporting state Rep. Arnold Mooney in the 2020 race.

Ahead of the general election, Moore was already lagging in fundraising in the Senate special election when a report from the Washington Post — alleging Moore had engaged in sexual misconduct with minors — prompted the NRSC decided to withdraw support from Moore’s campaign in early November. By the end of the race, Jones raised $22 million in an eight-month period.

This time, Trump is wading into the primary early, Tweeting that while he wanted Moore to win in 2017, “he didn’t, and probably won’t [in 2020].” Back in 2017, Trump waited to endorse Strange until a week before the initial primary. Republican strategists also believe that there’s more to Moore’s record to litigate, including his financial record — not to mention a recent loss in a high-profile Senate race. And according to one Republican strategist, the current pool of GOP candidates offers few opportunities for Moore to paint a stark contrast with a candidate who’s perceived to be too close to “the establishment,” though it’s possible that he could take advantage of Rep. Bradley Byrne’s previous criticisms of Trump.

Even without party support, Moore still came close, losing 50-48 percent in a race a couple weeks before Christmas. In other terms, Jones won by about 22,000 votes, with another 23,000 votes cast for write-in candidates. For the 23,000 voters who showed up to vote in a special election yet didn’t select either party’s candidate, popular write-ins included Strange, write-in candidate Lee Busby, Gov. Kay Ivey and Univ. of Alabama Football coach Nick Saban. (Farther down the list, Jesus Christ made several appearances, and one voter wrote in “my German Shepher [sic].”  In Bibb County, officials were unable to count votes for “honesty + integrity” and “both are an embarrassment.”)

And, of course, special election turnout is...special. In 2016, 2.1 million votes were cast for a presidential candidate in Alabama. In 2017, just 1.3 million votes were cast for the Senate special. A generic Republican should easily carry any statewide race in Alabama according to Inside Elections metric Baseline, where Republicans’ hold an advantage of 60-40 percent. But Moore has underperformed in regular election circumstances, too. In 2012, he received 52 percent in his race to become Chief Justice of the state Supreme Court even as Romney carried the state with 61 percent. That means more than 340,000 Romney voters didn’t vote for Moore down ballot.

On one hand, Moore’s 4-point victory for the state supreme court took place before the Washington Post’s reporting on his past allegations of sexual misconduct. On the other hand, Moore supporters were already inclined to distrust the media, and polling showed that most Aabama Republicans didn’t believe the allegations anyway.

But most importantly, Republican strategists and voters could head to the polls knowing that a vote against Moore could cost McConnell his job as Senate majority leader. While it might not be a great look for Republicans to support Moore— both financially and, frankly, verbally— staying out of the race completely could have major ramifications for the party. Republicans could lose their ability to confirm judges in Trump’s second term or block the agenda of a new Democratic president. In 2012, Missouri Rep. Todd Akin was partially hurt by his assessment of “legitimate rape,” but also by the party abandoning his candidacy for weeks.

Democrats need to gain three seats for control (with a White House victory) and four seats for a majority. The most likely path includes Arizona, Colorado, North Carolina, and Maine. But the path becomes steeper if the party loses Alabama — meaning Democrats would have to look to tougher states such as Georgia, Iowa or Texas to compensate. Republicans’ simply conceding a loss in Alabama puts Democrats one major step closer to the majority.

Moore’s candidacy should give Democrats some optimism about holding the seat, but Jones should still be considered an underdog.