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GOP senators grumble over Trump, RNC backing Moore

Senate Republicans are still trying to keep their distance from Alabama Republican Roy Moore, creating a fresh break with President Donald Trump and the Republican National Committee, which have re-embraced Moore less than a week before a key special Senate election despite accusations of child molestation against the GOP candidate.

Both the National Republican Senatorial Committee and Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC controlled by allies of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, said they planned on staying out of the contest. Several Republican senators protested the RNC’s decision furiously on Tuesday.

But there’s a clear sense of resignation among GOP senators who have tried to block Moore from winning the race, acknowledging that the explicit seal of approval from Trump has left Senate Republicans basically no good options from being elected to the Senate in a week. McConnell has acknowledged that he can’t force Moore out of the race.

“That’s up to them,” Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) said of the RNC’s renewed involvement in the race, throwing up his hands.

“I can’t blame them. Let’s face it, they represent the Republican Party,” Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) added, speaking about the RNC. “Frankly, I think if he gets elected, that ought to be — that ought to settle an awful lot of the questions.”

The RNC sent $50,000 to the Alabama Republican Party to help Moore in the final week of the campaign. Moore is set to campaign with former White House strategist Steve Bannon on Tuesday night in Fairhope, an affluent suburb in a county Trump won with more than 70 percent of the vote last November.

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said flatly that she does not think the RNC should be supporting Moore. On his Twitter account, Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, one of Moore’s loudest critics in the Senate, showed off a $100 check he made to the Jones campaign on Tuesday.

“I don’t understand that move,” South Dakota Sen. John Thune, the third-ranking Senate Republican, said of the RNC’s decision. “I guess that’s consistent with what the president wants to see happen but it’s not consistent with what I’ve been saying. I just think again, we’re putting ourselves in a situation where we’re going to have a cloud of uncertainty and a cloud of distraction come January.”

McConnell and allies of the majority leader say his position hasn’t shifted since the Washington Post printed the first allegations Moore that preyed on women last month. More than a half-dozen women have accused Moore of sexual misbehavior, including some who were teenagers at the time.

“Look, I’ve made my position perfectly clear,” McConnell said. “I had hoped that Judge Moore would resign — in other words, withdraw from the race. That obviously is not going to happen. If he were to be elected, I think he would immediately have an issue with the Ethics Committee, which they would take up.”

“I don’t think he’s wavered at all in his opinion of Roy Moore,” said Josh Holmes, a former McConnell chief of staff. “I think what’s changed is the fact that Moore is inevitably going to be the nominee.”

Many Republicans, once it became clear there was no way to replace Moore, have simply tried to erase the race from their thoughts. “It doesn’t even come up at conference lunches,” Holmes said.

McConnell has repeatedly stressed that he believes the accusers and tried to force Moore off the ballot without success. But a viable Republican write-in campaign never materialized, and a potential idea to shift the December 12 election date — by having current Sen. Luther Strange resign — was quickly determined to be unworkable.

“I don’t think anybody’s surprised here,” said Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), the state’s senior senator who backed Strange in the primary. “The president’s interested in keeping 52 votes up here and I’d like to, too. But a lot of us have different views on it, you know.”

Shelby cast his vote for a write-in candidate, but he declined to say who he voted for. And Shelby added that he believes Moore will “probably win” next Tuesday.

North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis, the NRSC’s vice chairman, said: “The president has voiced his support for him so I’m sure that was instructive in [the RNC’s] decision … that’s a call they have to make; it’s not something I’ve personally done or will do.”

Other top Senate Republicans have kept up their anti-Moore posture. Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner, the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee who has called for Moore’s expulsion should he be elected, said Tuesday that the campaign arm’s position has not changed. McConnell also said the NRSC will not get re-involved.

There’s nothing that Senate Republicans can do to prevent Moore from being seated as a member of the Senate, multiple GOP senators stressed on Tuesday. A 1969 Supreme Court decision held that a duly elected member of Congress couldn’t be excluded as long as he or she met the age, citizenship and residency requirements laid out in the Constitution.

Expelling a victorious Moore after he was seated would be another matter, though it hasn’t been done since the Civil War era. But despite the Senate Ethics Committee’s broad jurisdiction to examine senators’ conduct, there have been some questions about whether the committee could investigate instances that occurred before the person was a sitting member of the Senate.

“The last two senators expelled from the Senate were the two Missouri senators in 1862,” said Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), though he said he agrees with Gardner’s decision for the NRSC to stay out of the race. “So expulsion is not something that the Senate has generally thought was the business of the Senate.”

Democrat Doug Jones’ campaign has sought to capitalize on the deep GOP divisions, highlighting Shelby’s declaration that he had voted for a write-in candidate instead of Moore.

“His conduct is so disturbing Sen. Shelby will not vote for him,” a narrator said in Jones’ latest campaign ad released on Tuesday. The ad then shows a clip of Shelby declaring: “I will not be voting for Judge Moore.”

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