Republicans are promising to do everything they can to obliterate Roy Moore in the Alabama Senate primary.
A push is underway to get President Donald Trump involved in derailing Moore. Republicans are actively moving to recruit Jeff Sessions to run for his old seat. And GOP leaders are warning the party will jeopardize perhaps its only chance at picking up a Senate seat next year if they let Democrat Doug Jones get his favored match-up.
Story Continued Below
“There will be a lot of efforts made to ensure that we have a nominee other than him and one who can win in November,” said Senate Majority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.). “He’s already proven he can’t.”
Added Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, “We’ll be opposing Roy Moore vigorously.”
Moore famously lost to Jones in 2017 after the Alabama Republican was besieged by sexual misconduct allegations from his past and he lost the support of key GOP officials. His reemergence as a candidate Thursday evoked palpable disgust among Republican senators as it dawned on them they will have to confront him once again before he potentially costs them another seat.
“Give me a break. This place has enough creepy old men,” said Sen. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.), referring to Washington, when asked about Moore’s candidacy.
“The people of Alabama are smarter than that,” said Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), who as leader of the party’s campaign arm at the time vowed to try and expel Moore from the Senate if he won. “They certainly didn’t choose him last time, why would they choose him this time?”
A Moore candidacy could harm Republicans’ national brand if he catches fire again, and incumbents running in purple states — like Gardner and McSally — are loath to find themselves tied to him. And facing a tougher 2020 map with several battleground seats in play, Republicans are eager to beat Jones and cushion their majority.
If Republicans do defeat Jones, that would require Democrats to pick up a minimum of four seats elsewhere to take the Senate. Alabama should be an easy pickup for Republicans, given the state’s bright red hue and Trump’s popularity, which is why Moore’s new run is causing such alarm in the GOP.
“You think it’s been divisive before? It gets really divisive on the other side,” Jones said of Moore’s Senate bid. Moore defeated former Sen. Luther Strange (R-Ala.) in 2017 despite significant support from the party establishment.
Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) has talked to Sessions about running for his old seat, which he left to become attorney general for Trump. Sessions did not indicate to him whether he will run, but Republicans said privately that the four-term senator could face his own problems as a candidate, given Trump’s antipathy for Sessions’ service in his administration.
Sessions suggested last year in an interview with POLITICO that he was done with politics, raising doubts that he would try and take on Moore.
“If Sessions runs, I think he would dominate the field. Now, I don’t know if he’ll run. He hasn’t said he wouldn’t run,” said Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.). “I would oppose Roy Moore. … I will not be by myself, I hope. I think Alabama can do better than that.”
Rep. Bradley Byrne (R-Ala.) and former Auburn Coach Tommy Tuberville are already in the race, and Rep. Gary Palmer (R-Ala.) is considering it. But that crowded field could easily play to Moore’s advantage given his past popularity with the state’s most conservative voters. What’s more, Moore also could conceivably win a general election with Trump atop the ticket, a nightmare for the Senate GOP that would then have to deal with a bomb-thrower in the caucus.
The president and his son, Donald Trump Jr., have already expressed their dissatisfaction with Moore’s run. Trump tweeted last month that Moore “cannot win,” and Trump Jr. tweeted Thursday that “Roy Moore is going against my father and he’s doing a disservice to all conservatives across the country in the process.”
“The people of Alabama rejected Roy Moore just a few months ago. And I don’t see that anything has changed,” said Sen. Todd Young (R-Ind.), chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
Yet Moore has been unbowed by that criticism, seeking to run once against as an outsider against the establishment. Republicans largely pulled their support from his bid after the sexual misconduct allegations were reported by the Washington Post, leaving Moore adrift in a race that should have been an easy GOP hold.
On Thursday, Moore called out Young for opposing his candidacy and slammed both the NRSC and the Senate Leadership Fund, an outside group that spent heavily against Moore in 2017. He accused the NRSC of running a “smear campaign” and bashed Shelby for doubting his viability.
“Why such a hatred and opposition to somebody running? Why does mere mention of my name cause people just to get up in arms in Washington, D.C.?” Moore said at a news conference Thursday.
That combative stance is leading some Republicans to suggest Trump may have to do more, because otherwise “we probably lose the seat,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas).
“I’m concerned,” Cornyn said. “If President Trump came out forcefully against him … that would certainly make it more likely that somebody else will get nominated.”
Yet Republicans are also wary of doing anything that could repeat the debacle of 2017, when support from Senate Republicans seemed to weigh on Strange and give Moore an opening in the primary. The Senate Leadership Fund is not yet vowing to spend in the race, waiting to see if his candidacy will fall apart on its own, and senators said they need to have a lighter touch this time around to stop Moore from succeed.
“We will do everything we can to stop him. But we need to be careful about that,” said one Republican senator. “We have to be more elegant.”
James Arkin contributed to this story.