It’s anyone’s guess what will happen in the Dec. 12 special Senate election in Alabama between former state Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore, the Republican, and former U.S. Attorney Doug Jones, the Democrat. We know that Alabama is a deeply conservative and strongly Republican state, with a real disinclination to electing a Democrat to anything, particularly a federal office. But I suspect there is a growing unease about Moore among many of these conservative, white voters after allegations that he had sexual encounters with underage girls, one 14 and the other 16. The older alleged victim charged Monday that he had groped her breasts and attempted “to force my head onto his crotch.” Moore was in his 30s and an assistant district attorney.
These voters are likely to be conflicted, vacillating from hour to hour and day to day, with polling of limited value. While new public polling shows the race closing, few of the pollsters have established track records. Even so, I think this once solidly Republican seat is now in some degree of jeopardy, perhaps extreme jeopardy.
I am struck by how much things have changed over the last 25 years. Shortly before the 1992 New Hampshire presidential primary, then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton was hit by a double-barrel assault. First came recorded telephone conversations with Gennifer Flowers, strongly suggesting that they had an extramarital affair. Then came news stories that he had taken a number of steps to dodge the draft during the Vietnam War.
These were stories that historically would have forced a candidate to drop out of a race, or face certain loss if he didn’t. But Clinton toughed it out, came in second in New Hampshire, declared himself the “comeback kid,” and went on to win the Democratic nomination and the election. Most Democrats and quite a few swing voters chose to ignore his transgressions.
Fast forward to 2016. Donald Trump’s reported behavior, notably the Billy Bush/Access Hollywood tapes, would have deep-sixed a candidate when I first started studying politics 40 years ago. But he chose to hang tough and was rewarded with the presidency. Most Republicans, more than a few swing voters, and the vast majority of conservative, evangelical Christians chose to ignore his missteps even though Trump’s life didn’t comport with many of the Judeo-Christian values they hold dear. Their antipathy toward Hillary Clinton was sufficient to turn a blind eye.
Some of this can be attributed to the extreme levels of partisanship that we have seen in recent years. Partisans are willing to put blinders on and ignore the faults of their candidate, but quick to condemn comparable behavior by someone in the opposition party.
Over the weekend, conservative radio talk-show host Charlie Sykes (who is not a Trump fan) tweeted, “Serious question: if you believe these women should be believed (as I do), what do you say about Juanita [Broaddrick], Kathleen Willey, and Paula Jones?” Fair enough. If you believe the allegations of sexual misconduct by Roy Moore, shouldn’t you believe the charges against Bill Clinton? Both of the underaged girls, now in their 50s, who accused Moore of inappropriate sexual advances voted for Donald Trump. But it doesn’t follow that the charges against Moore were politically motivated, any more than the charges against Clinton were.
The point of all of this is not to predict that Moore will or won’t win the election, but to say we simply don’t know.
The GOP establishment thinks its only hope is if GOP Gov. Kay Ivey delays the election to give Republicans more time to mount a write-in candidacy. That strikes me as very unlikely because Ivey would incur the wrath of Moore’s supporters, who would get their revenge when she seeks the GOP gubernatorial nomination next year.
If Moore wins on Dec. 12, some analysts believe it would cause more harm to the party than losing the seat to Jones. Beyond guilt by association, they figure that Moore’s statements and his intention to force Republicans to cast votes on problematic social issues could badly damage the GOP. If Jones wins, Republicans figure they would very likely win the seat back in 2020 when it comes up again.
In the larger scheme of things, two months ago there was not a plausible path for Democrats to score the net gain of three seats needed to win a Senate majority next November. But now, with open GOP seats in Alabama and Arizona, Sen. Dean Heller’s tenuous hold in Nevada, and the possibility that former Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen might run for another other open seat in Tennessee, there is at least a theoretical path to a gain of three, though it would depend on either no losses or possibly just one loss among the 25 Democratic seats that are also up. It’s still unlikely that Democrats can net three, but no longer impossible.