How Republicans blundered into Roy Moore and derailed a conversation about sexual assault
Local columnist says Senate election is another step in Alabama-ization of American politics
If Republican grandees in Washington hadn't been so determined to handpick Alabama's next senator, they might not be burdened now with the law-breaking, religious zealot Roy Moore, an alleged child molester and a man nostalgic for a time in U.S. history "when families were united — even though we had slavery," as their candidate in Tuesday's special Senate election.
"It's the stupidest string of nonsense that I've ever seen in my life," Alabama political writer Josh Moon said as he recounted the chain of clumsy missteps and scandals that led Republicans to blunder into this colossal mess of an election with Moore on their ticket.
Establishment Republicans in Washington had wanted former Alabama attorney general Luther Strange to represent the party. Strange had already been appointed to the Senate, picked to serve on an interim basis by then-governor Robert Bentley. That seemed to the D.C. apparatchiks to have gone pretty smoothly.
But the truth was that it hadn't gone smoothly at all. As attorney general, Strange had been in charge of investigating a sex and corruption scandal involving governor Bentley. He'd abandoned that for the Senate appointment.
To Alabama voters it smelled fishy — as though Strange got the Senate seat as a quid pro quo for shutting down his investigation of the governor.
When all the dirt came out, Bentley resigned in disgrace. But Strange came away from it badly damaged, too.
"And so out of that, everybody said, 'You know what? We really hate Luther Strange, and he will never have that Senate seat," said Moon.
'In strolls Roy Moore'
Still, up in D.C., Republican fixers missed all the warning signs and continued spending millions of dollars to mow down every reasonable alternative to their preferred candidate in the Alabama Senate primary.
Strange lost anyway and, says Moon, "in strolls Roy Moore," a former Alabama state judge with a history of controversy. Soon after came the allegations, reported by the Washington Post, about Moore's alleged behaviour with young girls decades ago.
Two women accused Moore of sexual misconduct when they were 14 and 16 and he was in his 30s. Others say Moore attempted to start romantic relationships with them when he was in his 30s and they were teenagers.
For a couple of weeks, Republicans tried to wriggle out of the disaster they'd made for themselves by standing up for Moore's accusers — "I believe the women," said Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell.
D.C. Republicans tried asking Moore to step down. They tried threatening him with expulsion if he wins the Senate election. They tried withholding money from his campaign.
But they gave all that up when the president donated his full-throated support to Moore and urged Alabamians to get out and vote for him.
- McConnell calls on Roy Moore to quit Senate race as new accuser comes forward
- What's worse than Moore losing an election? For Republicans, it might be winning one
At a moment when women are coming forward almost daily to speak about their experiences with harassment — and worse — in the workplace, Republicans took off to their own little corner to have a much narrower conversation — one where the urgent question is whether women with no reason to lie, who independently tell similar stories, should be believed over men who appear to have every reason to lie.
President Trump has a particular motive for casting doubt on accusers. In his election campaign last year, more than 10 women came forward to make allegations about his conduct, which included sexual assaults. He denied their stories even though their descriptions of his behaviour matched the kind of things he was caught bragging about on a taped segment for the TV show Access Hollywood.
He was elected president anyway and so Moore can be encouraged by that example to follow the same script. So can many others who speak in his defence.
Innocent until proven guilty
Travelling through Alabama last week, the same argument could be heard again and again in interviews with local residents and from those calling into talk radio: every citizen is entitled to the presumption of innocence until proven guilty.
That's true. But the truth of it can be an enabling thing for people like Trump and Moore. As Beverly Young Nelson recalled in her vivid account of how Moore allegedly attacked her in his car when she was a teenager and he was a lawyer in his early 30s: "You're just a child," she says he said. "I am the district attorney of Etowah County, and if you tell anyone about this, no one will ever believe you."
That has been the problem since the year zero, and the president and the judge are not helping to change it.
Life teaches that people tend to believe what they want to believe, so if Moore is elected on Tuesday, it will be because a majority of voters didn't believe or didn't care enough about the allegations against him.
Alabama hasn't elected a Democrat to the U.S. Senate since re-electing Richard Shelby in 1992 — and he switched to become a Republican two years later. So Doug Jones, the Democrat challenging Moore, already has a big hill to climb and the terrain is made even steeper because his liberal abortion views are anathema to many in a state where nearly half the voters are evangelical Christians.
Moon, who writes a column for the Alabama Political Reporter, calls what's happening in the Senate election another step in the Alabama-ization of American politics that began with the president's election last year. He's written an apology for it.
"Dear America. We're sorry," it begins. "I told you last November that no amount of lowering expectations could possibly prepare you for the river of lunacy that was rushing towards you.
"And, well, let's just say, I nailed that one."
On Tuesday, he expects to see Alabama voters pick the accused child molester to represent them in the United States Senate.
With files from The Associated Press