One year into the Trump revolution it now appears almost certain that a Senate seat in deep-red Alabama is going to end up in the hands of the Democrats. The slim Republican majority will likely be eroded to a single seat, which will effectively put the brakes on the Republican agenda. It’s worth looking back at how the Republican Party got here.
The Alabama Senate race began simply enough. Incumbent Jeff Sessions left to become the attorney general with the full expectation that the governor of Alabama would appoint a Republican to take his place and the state’s conservative voters would rubberstamp the governor’s pick.
Enter Luther Strange. Strange was the state attorney general and was responsible for the investigation of Gov. Robert Bentley. Bentley picked Strange to be the new senator in a move that many Alabamans thought smacked of an insider quid pro quo after impeachment proceedings against the governor were delayed for six months.
Although he was endorsed by President Trump and the majority of the Washington Republicans, the scent of corruption was too great for Strange to overcome. Strange and Moore were the top two finishers in the Republican primary in August. Moore, backed by Steve Bannon and the populist wing of the GOP, went on to defeat Strange in the runoff to become the Republican nominee.
Things went bad for Moore almost immediately. A Fox News poll in October, weeks before the sex scandal broke, showed that Moore was tied with Democrat Doug Jones at 42 percent. The poll was a shock to Alabama Republicans.
In a moment that may turn out to be prophetic, President Trump had argued at a September rally for Luther Strange that “ Roy has a very good chance of not winning in the general election.”
Moore had a long history in Alabama. Twice elected to the Alabama Supreme Court, he had finished neither term. He was removed from the court in 2003 for refusing to comply with a federal court’s order to remove a Ten Commandments monument from the state building. In 2015, he was removed again for refusing to comply with the Supreme Court’s decision mandating same-sex marriage. Between his partial terms on the court, Moore mounted two unsuccessful campaigns for governor in 2006 and 2010.
Even before Moore partnered with Steve Bannon to take on Strange, there were warning signs about Moore. The most obvious red flags were Moore’s connections to fringe conspiracy beliefs. Moore debuted as a columnist for World Net Daily, a prominent fake news site, in 2006. One of the columns that Moore authored argued for a religious test for office that would prohibit Muslims from serving in Congress. Moore was also a prominent birther, claiming that Barack Obama was not a natural-born citizen as recently as December 2016. In a September 2017 interview with Vox, Moore claimed, “There are communities under Sharia law right now in our country.”
Even before the sexual assault allegations, there were questions about Moore’s character. In 2002, Moore founded the nonprofit legal organization, the Foundation for Moral Law. Moore said in public that he did not take a “regular salary” from the group, but the Washington Post reported that the charity paid Moore a salary of $180,000 per year, which amounted to more than $1 million and was far more than the foundation disclosed on IRS filings.
In 2002, the Montgomery Advertiser hinted that there was an unknown, dark side to Roy Moore. “Some of those who worked with Moore roll their eyes when asked about him but keep their mouths shut,” Todd Kleffman wrote for the Advertiser, “There are plenty of stories to tell, the longtime secretaries, parole officials and lawyers said, but not on the record and not now, while Moore sits atop the state court system and controls its purse strings.”
Jimmy Hedgspeth, the Etowah County DA, said at the time, “If Roy wasn't the chief justice, I'd tell you anything you want to know. I think we have to have respect for the office, even if we don't like the people who hold it.”
Teresa Jones, who worked with Moore at the District Attorney’s office in Gadsden, said in a tweet this week, “It was common knowledge about Roy's propensity for teenage girls. I'm appalled that these women are being skewered for the truth.” Other locals in Gadsden say that Moore was banned from the mall in the late 1970's for harassing teenage girls.
Looking back, there were plenty of warning signs about Roy Moore. If the Washington Post could hear the whispers about Moore and seek out witnesses to his behavior, why couldn’t opposition researchers from other Republican campaigns? Why didn’t Alabama’s party establishment intervene to spare the state the embarrassment that it is currently experiencing?
The answer is that the Republican Party is caught up in irrational populist anger. The party’s voters rejected Luther Strange because he was too corrupt and too connected to the party establishment. They rejected Mo Brooks because he was insufficiently subservient to Donald Trump.
In the end, Alabama Republicans violated the basic rule of William F. Buckley to nominate the most conservative candidate who can win. In Roy Moore, Alabama Republicans picked a candidate who was known to have embraced conspiracy theories, who was vulnerable to questions about his business dealings, who had two failed campaigns for statewide office and who, after winning elections, had failed to fulfill his term of office twice. Even without allegations of sexual misconduct, Moore should have been toxic as a candidate.