Senate Republicans appear to have put aside their indignation for Alabama GOP Senate candidate Roy Moore as reality sets in that the controversial conservative firebrand is likely to be their future colleague.
That apparent shift was sparked by President Donald Trump’s full-throated endorsement of Moore on Monday morning, followed by the Republican National Committee’s decision to jump back into the race by providing a small investment for the Alabama Republican party.
“I don’t think anybody’s surprised,” Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) told reporters on Tuesday when asked about Trump’s endorsement. “The president’s interested in keeping 52 votes up here. I’d like to, too. A lot of us have different views on it.”
Shelby did not vote for Moore on his absentee ballot for the Dec. 12 special election, and instead wrote in a “distinguished” Republican. He said neither the president nor the RNC consulted him on their respective decisions, though Trump asked him how he voted and how he felt about the race.
“I can’t blame them,” Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) said when asked about the RNC’s decision. “I mean, let’s face it, they represent the Republican party. … They have every right to support him.”
The softening of Senate Republicans’ anti-Moore rhetoric underscores a notable change within the party toward the conservative Senate candidate, whom many lawmakers said just weeks ago should drop out of the race. But a split still remains among national Republicans over whether a Moore win will ultimately benefit the party. While some are willing to brush aside the multiple allegations of sexual misconduct that have come to light in recent weeks, others have taken a harder line out of fear that Democrats will try to brand Moore as the face of the GOP.
“I think it’s going to be difficult enough for our party in the future without being the party of Roy Moore,” Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ), a vocal critic of both Trump and Moore, told The Daily Beast. Flake wrote a $100 check to the campaign of Doug Jones, Moore’s Democratic challenger.
Others fear that a Moore win would be a pyrrhic victory, causing leadership far more headaches than the benefits he would bring by maintaining the GOP’s two-vote majority in the Senate.
“[Mitch] McConnell has produced for Trump and Moore is hating on McConnell,” said Scott Jennings, a longtime GOP operative who is close to the majority leader. “It makes me suspicious that Moore really cares about being a team player with the GOP/Trump agenda.”
McConnell had initially said that Moore should withdraw from the race altogether. He has also said the women accusing Moore of sexual misconduct are credible. But on Sunday, he too appeared to back off that language, saying only that the decision should be up to Alabamians. On Tuesday, the majority leader described it as more of an acknowledgement of reality: that Moore isn’t backing out.
“There’s been no change of heart. I had hoped earlier that he would withdraw as a candidate. That obviously is not going to happen,” McConnell said on Tuesday. “If he were elected, he would immediately have an ethics committee case, and the committee would look at the situation and give its advice.”
McConnell had, in fact, shopped around for a viable write-in candidate. But Republicans—both nationally and statewide in Alabama—quickly concluded that such an option was not feasible. Moreover, a credible GOP write-in challenger would have almost certainly handed the election to Jones, the Democratic candidate, by splitting up the GOP vote.
Moore’s campaign has long used McConnell’s anti-Moore rhetoric to its advantage as a rallying cry for the base of anti-establishment, pro-Trump voters in the state. Jennings argued that the majority leader’s strategy didn’t backfire; but rather that the Moore campaign was able to effectively use The Washington Post—which first revealed the allegations that Moore pursued teenage girls while he was in his twenties and thirties—to his advantage.
“I think the way the allegations came out—from a national news outlet and not a local one—probably caused the most backlash from Republicans in the state,” he said. “That’s the sad world we live in, where distrust in the national [political] media is so high that serious matters are immediately dismissed if your own tribe is negatively affected.”
But others felt that McConnell was forced to re-adjust once it became clear that neither Moore, nor the state’s Republican governor, Kay Ivey, would go along with a plan to change the ticket.
“[Senate Republicans are] well aware of the fact that the more they try and tell Alabamians how to vote, the more they push this vicious cycle of establishment-resentment. So for every other elected official it’s a no-win situation,” a Senate GOP aide told The Daily Beast. The aide was granted anonymity to candidly describe Republican leaders’ thinking.
McConnell and other rank-and-file Republican senators declined to comment specifically on the RNC’s decision to get back into the race, which reportedly amounts to just $50,000 for the Alabama Republican party and no staff assignments. Others, though, pointed the finger at the president, who earlier Monday explicitly threw his support behind Moore.
“The decisions that the RNC makes when you have a Republican president are largely decisions that I think the White House is determinative on,” Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO) told The Daily Beast. “I’m not going to try to run the RNC.”
Blunt, who is a member of Republican leadership, said he supports the National Republican Senatorial Committee’s earlier decision to back out of the race. The chairman of the NRSC, Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO), declared a few weeks ago that the Senate should vote to expel Moore from Congress if he is elected—but Blunt cast doubt on the idea that Moore could easily be removed from office. Gardner was notably absent for Senate GOP leaders’ weekly press conference on Tuesday afternoon.
“The last two senators expelled from the Senate were the two Missouri senators in 1862. So expulsion is not something that the Senate has generally thought was the business of the Senate,” he added.