As election nears, GOP braces for Moore victory

Top Republicans are starting to rally around embattled Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore, with a week left before voters head to the polls in Alabama.

After keeping Moore at a distance following The Washington Post’s November report that Moore had been accused of initiating a sexual encounter with a 14-year-old girl when he was in his 30s, President Trump changed course Monday. The president issued a full-throated endorsement through a series of tweets and made a personal phone call to Moore from Air Force One that ended with an enthusiastic, “Go get ’em Roy.”

The Republican National Committee followed suit, with an official telling The Hill late Monday that the national party would jump back into the race. Last month, the RNC backed out of its joint fundraising agreement with Moore amid the mounting allegations of sexual misconduct against him.

And on Sunday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellSenate advances public lands bill in late-night vote GOP senator to try to reverse requirement that Pentagon remove Confederate names from bases No, ‘blue states’ do not bail out ‘red states’ MORE (R-Ky.) appeared to dial back his demands that Moore drop out of the race, saying in an interview on ABC’s “This Week” that he’s “going to let the people of Alabama make the call.”

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There are still widespread fears among Republicans that Moore will sink the party in 2018. Many national Republicans say they believe the allegations from women who say that Moore abused them or sought romantic relationships when they were teenagers and he was a district attorney.

But the moves by Trump and McConnell reflect the new political reality for Republicans, who need Moore’s vote in the Senate and increasingly believe he will defeat Democrat Doug Jones in the Dec. 12 special election.

While few top Republicans beyond Trump are openly embracing Moore, Senate Republicans are increasingly resigned to serving with him.

“I don’t know what else anybody can do,” Senate Majority Whip John CornynJohn CornynSenate headed for late night vote amid standoff over lands bill Koch-backed group launches ad campaign to support four vulnerable GOP senators Tim Scott to introduce GOP police reform bill next week MORE (R-Texas) told The Hill. “We don’t get to vote, the voters do, and so I think it’s up them.”

Trump’s endorsement also appears to have tabled the idea — at least for now — of the Senate holding a vote to expel Moore if he wins the seat. But national Republicans are still keeping the candidate at arm’s length.

McConnell’s allies are looking to tamp down the notion that he’s reversed positions on Moore. A spokesperson for McConnell, who has called on Moore to drop out of the race and openly discussed a potential write-in challenge, said there had been no change in his position.

In the same interview on Sunday, McConnell said that if Moore wins, he would still have to face a Senate ethics probe into the allegations against him.

Those close to the majority leader say Republicans fully exhausted all of the avenues they had to replace Moore. McConnell’s statement that it’s up to Alabamians now is merely an acknowledgement of the political reality, said Josh Holmes, McConnell’s former chief of staff.

“His comments yesterday were a recognition of the fact that the contest is a week away and it’s Roy Moore versus Doug Jones, despite the best efforts of party leaders to field a better Republican candidate,” Holmes said. “I certainly didn’t see his comments as anything but an affirmation of the ethics process the Senate would undertake if Judge Moore were to win the election.”

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Meanwhile, former Trump adviser Stephen Bannon and his allies took a victory lap on what they viewed as a win for grass-roots conservatives over the Republican establishment.

Bannon and his allies stood by Moore even as the Washington establishment, from McConnell to the RNC and the NRSC, cut him loose.

Bannon will attend an Alabama rally for Moore in Fairhope on Tuesday. The Breitbart News chairman has three reporters on the ground in Alabama covering the race favorably for Moore, and an outside group he works with will launch a six-figure media buy in the state this week.

“You can see McConnell Incorporated already trying to spin it and make it seem like it’s not a devastating loss for them but they did everything in their power to push Moore out of the race, to pressure the White House to abandon him, and now they’re getting a rude awakening that President Trump doesn’t answer to Mitch McConnell, Mitch McConnell answers to President Trump,” said Andrew Surabian, an adviser to Bannon. 

“It shouldn’t be lost on those of us who care about our Senate Majority that Mitch McConnell did everything in his power to deliver a Republican Senate seat in Alabama to a liberal Democrat completely opposed to the Trump agenda,” he added. “There’s no hiding from that fact.”

Special elections are notoriously difficult to handicap, and the latest polls show the race is a toss-up ahead of Dec. 12. Moore leads Jones by only 2.6 points in the Real Clear Politics average, which is within the margin of error in a race that the Republican would normally be expected to win handily.

But political observers in the state say the race is breaking late in Moore’s favor. Trump’s late endorsement will be a boost, analysts say, even if it greatly complicates life for McConnell and the Senate Republicans.

“Trump refusing to take the party line and condemn Moore puts McConnell in a tough spot, it puts everyone in a tough spot,” said Ryan Williams, a former spokesman for Mitt Romney. “Here is a guy who has been credibly accused of being a child molester. But it’s tough to do anything if this has been openly discussed and vetted by the voters of Alabama and they still decide to send him to Washington.”

Republicans, led by NRSC Chairman Cory GardnerCory Scott GardnerSenate advances public lands bill in late-night vote OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Interior faces legal scrutiny for keeping controversial acting leaders in office | White House faces suit on order lifting endangered species protections | Lawmakers seek investigation of Park Police after clearing of protesters The Hill’s Campaign Report: Republicans go on attack over calls to ‘defund the police’ MORE (R-Colo.), said early on that the Senate should vote to expel Moore. But that becomes trickier with Trump’s endorsement.

“We’ll cross that bridge when we get there,” Cornyn said. 

When asked if Moore would be welcome to caucus with Republicans and attend their weekly lunches, Cornyn responded: “I think we have to respect their decision, whatever it is.”

National Republicans are in a full-blown panic over what Moore will mean for the party as it seeks to hold on to majorities in the House and Senate in 2018. 

Many are comparing the Moore problem to the one the party faced in 2012, when former Rep. Todd Akin (R-Mo.) and former Indiana Treasurer Richard Mourdock made comments about rape during their Senate campaigns that dogged the party throughout the election cycle.

“Moore’s damage to the Republican brand will be far worse than those,” said Scott Jennings, a GOP strategist with close ties to McConnell. “The president can’t afford to lose either chamber and if you look at the generic ballot, we’re already teetering on the brink. Do you really think Roy Moore makes things better for us?”

Romney said on Twitter that Moore would be a “stain on the GOP and the nation” and that “no vote, no majority, is worth losing our honor, our integrity.”

Trump, who will campaign this week near the Alabama border in Pensacola, Fla., has cast the decision to back Moore in a purely political light.

The president argued that Moore could be the deciding vote on tax-reform or a host of other GOP legislative efforts in 2018 and that the party can’t risk the seat falling into the hands of a Democrat.

“I think he’s reading the tea leaves and sees that Moore is going to win,” said former Alabama state Rep. Steve Flowers (R). “He’s come to understand that the party is better off having Moore than a Democrat.”

Jordain Carney contributed

This story was updated at 9:45 p.m.

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