Roy Moore’s announcement Thursday that he would once again run for the U.S. Senate in Alabama sent a shudder through the Republican Party and raised a question: Could the GOP have avoided this scenario by uniting early around a credible consensus candidate?
Moore is a former state Supreme Court chief justice who last appeared on the scene in the winter of 2017, when he was the Republican nominee for the Senate in a special election. His candidacy crashed and burned amid charges of sexual misconduct involving minors from earlier in his career, and Moore’s loss to Doug Jones marked the first time Alabama had sent a Democrat to the Senate in 20 years.
Yet now Moore is back for, well, more. He called the accusations against him “false” and cited the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh — which featured allegations of sexual assault against the judge — as an event that will make voters more skeptical of the charges against him.
“If they didn’t see through it then, they saw through it with Kavanaugh,” Moore said. “I’m in the race.”
Moore will be able to count on support from some number of hardcore supporters who view the allegations against him as politically motivated, or made up, or irrelevant, and he is helped by the absence of a clear consensus candidate in the Republican Party. There are two Republicans who have already declared: Rep. Bradley Byrne, from the state’s southwest corner, and former Auburn football coach Tommy Tuberville.
But Alabama insiders say neither of those two candidates is formidable enough to easily defeat Moore, especially in a primary in which 50.1 percent or more will be needed to avoid a runoff.
Two other politicians seen as credible — Lt. Gov. Will Ainsworth and Rep. Gary Palmer — have declined to run. Ainsworth shut the door definitively two months ago, but Palmer has not.
“I would hope that there would be stronger viable candidates. Gary Palmer would be the preference,” said Hatton Smith, a Republican businessman who has chaired fundraising efforts for mainstream candidates in the past.
However, even Palmer and Ainsworth are likely not strong enough to have cleared the field, other Alabama Republicans said.
When Jones beat Moore in 2017, Smith said it was a case of “good over evil” and said he looked forward to Republicans finding a candidate who could beat Jones in 2020. But Smith told Yahoo News in an interview Thursday that if Moore were again the Republican nominee in 2020, he and many other Republicans he knows would vote for Jones again, as they did in 2017.
“There will be a lot of mobilization of people who are Republicans who will not vote for Moore under any circumstances, and you can count me as leading the opposition,” Smith said.
Because of this, Moore’s entrance into the race is good news for Jones, who is probably the most vulnerable incumbent senator in the entire country. Jones’s best hope of being reelected rests on a rematch with Moore, according to one knowledgeable Alabama Republican.
That view is shared by an Alabama Democratic leader, who called the Moore candidacy a “great opportunity” for Democrats.
“Roy Moore doesn’t represent Alabama values, which is why he was rejected by a bipartisan group of Democrats, Republicans and independents in 2017,” the state House minority leader, Anthony Daniels, told Yahoo News. “If we want to create opportunity for all Alabamians, we need senators like [Doug Jones], not people who will embarrass our state and chase away job creators, like Moore.”
President Trump, who had backed Moore the last time he ran for Senate even after the sexual misconduct allegations surfaced, has recently tried to wave Moore off from a run. In late May the president tweeted that “if Alabama does not elect a Republican to the Senate in 2020, many of the incredible gains that we have made during my Presidency may be lost.”
“Roy Moore cannot win, and the consequences will be devastating,” Trump said.
Donald Trump Jr., the president’s son, has been even more scathing. “If you actually care about #MAGA more than your own ego, it’s time to ride off into the sunset, Judge,” he said.
One person close to the president said it’s unclear whether Trump will continue to criticize Moore, but another Alabama Republican insider said that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., will advocate for Trump to push Moore out of the race.
“McConnell’s going to stay on him for that and it’s an easy thing to do for McConnell that doesn’t cost [the White House] anything,” said the Alabama Republican.
But this Republican insider said he has watched Moore come back from political purgatory before, and the past is a cautionary tale for those who might underestimate him now.
“He’ll win when nobody expected him to win and we’d all get together and say we’re never going to let that happen again,” the Republican insider said. “This will be another test.”
Read more from Yahoo News: