After the Washington Post reported Thursday that Senate candidate Roy Moore of Alabama had allegedly tried to initiate sex with a 14-year-old girl when he was a 32-year-old county prosecutor, national Republicans quickly distanced themselves. The National Republican Senatorial Committee severed fundraising ties with Moore’s campaign. More than a dozen of Moore’s would-be Republican colleagues so far have questioned whether he is fit to be in the Senate, including Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Even Alabama’s senior senator, Richard Shelby, called on Moore to step aside from the December 12 special election if the charges are true. President Donald Trump also questioned Moore’s continued candidacy amid the allegations, which Vice President Mike Pence likewise said he found “disturbing.” Senator John McCain didn’t equivocate: “He should immediately step aside and allow the people of Alabama to elect a candidate they can be proud of.”
But here in Alabama, the reaction has been very different. One state representative told an Alabama newspaper that Moore’s accuser should be prosecuted. The state auditor said a romantic relationship between an older man and a younger woman is biblical. Many elected and party officials questioned the accuser’s motivations and timing, dismissing the Post report as dirty politics and “fake news.” True, some Republicans, especially among the establishment set who didn’t want Moore in office in the first place, called on Moore to resign if the allegations are true. Asked Friday whether the stories told by Moore’s accusers were trustworthy, Governor Kay Ivey said, “Why wouldn’t it be?” But one longtime Republican told al.com Moore would have to be “caught on video with a dead boy or a goat” to lose the support of his fervent fans.
What’s going on? Partisanship often overrides religious or moral values in Alabama—which largely accounts for the divergent responses to Moore’s scandal in the state versus the rest of the country. But that also makes Moore’s case an interesting litmus test for Alabama, amid a national outing of sexual abusers in entertainment, government and the media. Will the state stand by a man who promises policies that much of the electorate wants and who holds similar religious views, or will it abandon him?
Moore, who has made a career touting the Ten Commandments and defying federal authority, is a hero to many voters in Alabama, a deeply conservative and religious state where half the residents identify as evangelicals and say they oppose both abortion and LGBTQ rights. Moore, to say the least, has been outspoken on these issues. And an estimated one-third of voters in the state Republican Party, which dominates in Alabama, consistently support him.
“Voters in this state have a history of ignoring sexual misconduct,” says Larry Powell, a professor of communications studies at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, a political consultant and the author of books on state politics. “They voted for Trump, and he still has strong support in this state.” Steve Flowers, a former state representative turned political commentator, also cites “Big” Jim Folsom, who had a penchant for kissing women on the campaign trail, saying he would start “with the 16-year-olds” and work his way to older ones from there. Folsom fathered a child out of wedlock while Alabama’s governor in the 1940s and was again elected governor in 1954.
Thursday’s story in the Washington Post—in which an Alabama woman said that in 1979, Moore, then 32, had stripped to his underpants, touched her bra and panties and tried to get her to touch him when she was 14—is the talk of Alabama. Three other women also told the Post that Moore, now 70, tried to date them when they were between 16 and 18 and he was in his early 30s. Two of the four said he served them alcohol as minors. On Saturday, a former colleague of Moore’s told CNN it was “common knowledge” that Moore dated teenagers at the time.
Moore vehemently denies the charges and says he did not even know his main accuser. In a series of Twitter posts, he called the article “the most vicious and nasty round of attacks against me I’ve EVER faced!” and said his campaign is in a “spiritual battle” for conservative Christian values. “The forces of evil will lie, cheat, steal – even inflict physical harm – if they believe it will silence and shut up Christian conservatives,” Moore wrote. “I will NEVER GIVE UP the fight!” But while telling Fox News host Sean Hannity on Friday that dating teenagers “would have been out of my customary behavior,” Moore added, “I don’t remember dating any girl without permission of her mother.”
Polling conducted after the Post article was published suggests support for Moore among state voters might be eroding. The survey, conducted Thursday by the Atlanta-based research firm Opinion Savvy, put Moore and his Democratic opponent, Doug Jones, in a virtual dead heat, with 46.4 percent of respondents saying they would vote for Moore and 46 percent saying they would cast ballots for Jones. The previous Opinion Savvy poll on the race, from late September, had Moore with a 5.7-point lead.
But as the reactions of many Alabama officials suggests, that might not be enough to sway the outcome of the special election to fill the seat formerly held by Attorney General Jeff Sessions. “Many see this as an attack by the Washington establishment,” says Bill Britt, editor-in-chief of the Alabama Political Reporter. “They conclude this is McConnell’s side of the party coming after Moore’s side.” Flowers estimates that 30 percent of Alabama Republicans would vote for Moore “come hell or high water. … They’re not going to give these accusations any credibility.”
And in what is expected to be a low turnout in a crimson-red state, Moore’s base may be enough to carry him to victory. “Some moderate Republicans who are dismayed by all this may stay home,” Powell says. “But I think Moore’s supporters are going to turn out in droves.”
To be fair, many in Alabama—Republicans and Democrats—are extremely disturbed by the allegations that Moore as an adult tried to initiate romantic relationships with underage girls. The fact that he was a prosecutor at the time when he is alleged to have served alcohol to minors, tried to have sex with a minor and took two to his home in an attempt to have sex—all either misdemeanors or felonies under Alabama law—makes it even more disturbing to them. Powell, for one, argues that most voters in the state, where the age of consent is 16, believe a much older adult seeking sex with a 14-year-old is simply wrong: “That’s definitely too young by anyone’s standards in Alabama.”
Not quite anyone, though. Jim Zeigler, the state auditor and former chairman of the Conservative Christians of Alabama and the state League of Christian Voters, told the Washington Examiner on Thursday that there is nothing wrong with a man in his early 30s dating a teenager. He cites both John the Baptist and Jesus, saying they were the progeny of men with much younger wives. (The Bible actually says that Jesus’ mother, Mary, had a virgin conception.) Moore married his current wife in 1985, when he was 38 and she was 24. “They’re blessed with a wonderful marriage, and his wife Kayla is 14 years younger than Moore,” Zeigler told the Examiner.
Five county Republican party chairs the Toronto Star contacted Thursday said they believed the allegations are false. Bibb County Republican Party chair Jerry Pow might have had the most cynical take. He told the Star he would vote for Moore regardless of whether the allegations are substantiated, later adding he’s not saying he supports sex with minors, he just opposes Democrats. Another county GOP head said he would consider voting for Moore in that case. Ed Henry, a state representative from the northern Alabama city of Hartselle, called Moore the true victim. “If they believe this man is predatory, they are guilty of allowing him to exist for 40 years,” Henry told the Cullman Times. “I think someone should prosecute and go after them. You can’t be a victim 40 years later, in my opinion.”
There is already a sustained campaign among some state GOP officials and supporters to dismiss the allegations as fabrications desperately cooked up by the liberal media and the Democratic Party. They point to media reports that one of Moore’s accusers was a sign-language interpreter for Hillary Clinton and other Democrats as evidence of a conspiracy. “A lot of people here won’t believe anything the Washington Post prints,” Flowers says. “Their attitude is, ‘If the Jasper Daily Mountain Eagle says it, I will believe it.’”
Many Republicans note the allegations are decades old and question the timing during a high-stakes election when Republicans hold only a thin margin in the U.S. Senate. None of the accusers went public when Moore was elected chief justice in 2000 and 2012 and when he ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2006 and 2010, making the women’s stories even more suspicious, many Republicans here say. In media interviews, the lawyer for Leigh Corfman, the woman who told the Post about a sexual encounter with Moore when she was 14, has said Corfman was afraid to come forward earlier out of concern for her now-adult children.
Jones, who denies prior knowledge of the Post story, has said very little about the allegations against Moore. He issued an eight-word statement Thursday: “Roy Moore needs to answer these serious charges.” Accusations of molestation normally would be fodder for attack ads. But Flowers bets Jones is unlikely to use the allegations to attack Moore. “He knows if you go negative on Moore it only will make his people more fervent, so it’s best to leave it alone.”
The state Republican Party’s executive committee could vote to withdraw the party’s nomination. That is unlikely, absent a surprise confession by Moore, Flowers says. Because ballots already have been printed and absentees mailed, Moore’s name will remain before voters on December 12, regardless of whether he withdraws or is booted out by the party, according to the Alabama secretary of state’s office. In that scenario, if Moore gets the most votes, the result will be voided and a new election held.
As the week wore down, many in Alabama wondered why it took so long for the allegations to become public.
“This has been the one that got away for more than one Alabama political reporter,” says Kyle Whitmire, a reporter and political columnist for al.com, which serves Birmingham, Huntsville and Mobile. “The rumors have been there, but tracing them back to their sources has always led to dead ends and leads gone cold.”
Whitmire says he was approached a few years ago via social media by a person he described in an email to POLITICO Magazine as “a woman who claimed to be a friend of a friend of the woman in the Post’s story.” The friends encouraged her to step forward, Whitmire wrote in the email, “but as I understood it at the time, she was very afraid of potential blowback—which has now proven all too warranted—and decided against going public.”
Moore will lose only if enough moderate Republicans, many of whom consider him an embarrassment, vote for Jones, Alabama political experts say.
“They think he has been a dirty spot on the party for some time,” says Powell, the professor and political consultant. “But their quandary is: Can they bring themselves to vote for a Democrat?”
It’s like the fabled divide between fans of the Alabama and Auburn collegiate football teams, says Britt, the political editor. “If you’re an Alabama fan, you just don’t go to the other side and root for Auburn.”
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