By Joseph Ax
(Reuters) - The Republican Senate campaign wing on Friday cut fundraising ties with Roy Moore, the party's U.S. Senate nominee in Alabama, the latest sign that the Republican establishment was abandoning his campaign a day after sexual misconduct allegations upended a seemingly one-sided race.
Meanwhile, Democrats and progressive groups, emboldened by Democratic election victories in Virginia and New Jersey on Tuesday, sought to capitalize on the accusations in support of the Democratic nominee, former U.S. Attorney Doug Jones.
Moore, a controversial former judge and a staunch Christian conservative, was accused by a woman of initiating a sexual encounter in 1979 when she was 14 years old and he was a 32-year-old prosecutor, the Washington Post reported on Thursday.
Three other women said he pursued them when they were between the ages of 16 and 18, though none accused him of sexual contact.
The 70-year-old Moore again denied any wrongdoing on Friday during an appearance on conservative commentator Sean Hannity's national radio show.
"These allegations are completely false and misleading," Moore said of claims that he engaged in sexual misconduct.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee, which helps elect Republicans to the Senate, filed paperwork with federal election officials on Friday severing its fundraising relationship with Moore for the special election on Dec. 12.
Numerous Republican leaders either called on Moore to drop out immediately or said he should do so if the allegations prove true.
"Moore is unfit for office and should step aside," former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney said on Twitter.
But several Alabama Republican officials did not waver in their support of Moore.
The contrasting reactions echoed the rift exposed when Moore bested the incumbent, Luther Strange, in the Republican primary.
Strange was backed by Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and his allies, while Moore's candidacy earned the support of self-styled outsiders such as Steve Bannon, the former strategist for U.S. President Donald Trump.
Following the publication of the Washington Post story, several Democratic senators, including liberal Elizabeth Warren, sent email blasts to their donor lists, soliciting donations to Jones' campaign.
The Democratic Party has been coordinating with the Jones campaign behind the scenes, offering logistical aid while wary of providing overt support such as television advertising in the deeply Republican state.
"The best thing that Democrats can do in the Alabama Senate race is make sure the Doug Jones campaign can run the strongest, most aggressive race that the campaign can," said a Democratic operative, who requested anonymity.
Progressive groups MoveOn, Democracy for America and Indivisible expect the revelations to boost their grassroots efforts to engage voters in Alabama.
"We were planning to go bigger already," Matt Blizek, who oversees election mobilization for MoveOn, said. "With the news and the fact that this is a close race, that's only going to increase."
A win for Jones could transform the political picture in Washington, where Senate Republicans hold a narrow 52-48 edge.
The race had been seen as a long shot for Democrats in Alabama, which has not elected a Democratic senator in a quarter century.
But a confluence of events even before Thursday had given some Democrats hope of an upset victory, despite Jones' double-digit deficit in some opinion polls.
Moore was twice forced out of his position as the state's chief justice, once for refusing to remove a Ten Commandments monument from the courthouse and once for defying the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling legalizing same-sex marriage. Democrats have highlighted his penchant for incendiary statements about Muslims and homosexuality.
Zac McCrary, a veteran Democratic pollster based in Birmingham, Alabama, said he now sees Jones as the favorite.
"Roy Moore had much less margin for error than a Republican does traditionally in Alabama," McCrary said. "Maybe for the first time in this campaign season, I would bet against Roy Moore representing Alabama in the U.S. Senate."
But Jonathan Gray, a Republican consultant in Alabama, said voters were already questioning the veracity of the Washington Post story, given its timing. The only development that could sink Moore's candidacy is a write-in campaign from a Republican backed by the party, he said.
Absent that, he said, all the analysis in the world will not change a simple fact: "Roy Moore wins December 12."
(Reporting by Joseph Ax; Additional reporting by Eric Beech, Eric Walsh, David Alexander and James Oliphant; Editing by Mary Milliken and Grant McCool)