GOP scrambles to respond to Moore allegations

The bombshell allegations that GOP Senate nominee Roy Moore had an inappropriate sexual encounter with a 14-year-old girl when he was 32 have roiled Alabama’s Senate race, where the GOP candidate had been heavily favored to win in December.

A cascade of Republican senators, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellLawmakers feel pressure on guns Bipartisan group of House lawmakers urge action on Export-Import Bank nominees Curbelo Dem rival lashes out over immigration failure MORE (Ky.) and National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Cory GardnerCory Scott GardnerThe siren of Baton Rouge Senate confirms John Demers to head DOJ national security division Senate rejects bipartisan measure as immigration votes begin MORE (Colo.), immediately began calling for Moore to step aside if the allegations are true.

Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainLawmakers worry about rise of fake video technology Democrats put Dreamers and their party in danger by playing hardball Trump set a good defense budget, but here is how to make it better MORE (R-Ariz.) went the furthest of Senate Republicans on Thursday, calling on Moore to immediately step down.

“The allegations against Roy Moore are deeply disturbing and disqualifying,” McCain said in a statement. “He should immediately step aside and allow the people of Alabama to elect a candidate they can be proud of.”

Moore’s campaign vigorously denied the allegations as “garbage,” an argument that may resonate with his legion of hardcore supporters. Moore, a former Alabama state Supreme Court chief justice who won the nomination in the face of Beltway GOP opposition and frequently criticizes McConnell and other top Republicans, said in a fundraising pitch that he will “refuse to stand down.”

The allegations against Moore put Republicans in a predicament a month before the special election against Democratic nominee Doug Jones, one that threatens to weaken Moore’s grip on the race and tarnish the national Republican brand.

The Washington Post published the decades-old allegations in a Thursday afternoon story, with the most damning accusation levied by Leigh Corfman, now 53.

Corfman said she met Moore at the age of 14, when he offered to watch her while her mother attended a child custody hearing. At the time, Moore worked as an assistant district attorney.

Corfman told the paper that Moore asked for her telephone number and later took her to his house and kissed her. On a subsequent meeting, she recalled, he took off his clothing and much of hers, touching her over her underwear, and he tried to place her hand over his underwear, though she pulled her hand back.

Three other women told the paper that Moore had approached them when they were teenagers between the ages of 16 and 18, but that no sexual contact outside of kissing occurred. The legal age of consent in Alabama at the time was 16, while the statute of limitations has long expired on Corfman’s allegations, according to the Post.

Moore’s campaign chairman, Bill Armistead, blasted the allegations in a lengthy statement that accused the Post of publishing the story to hurt Moore because the paper’s editorial board has endorsed Jones.

“It is no surprise, with just over four weeks remaining, in a race for the U.S. Senate with national implications, that the Democratic Party and the country’s most liberal newspaper would come up with a fabrication of this kind,” he said.

During the primary, Senate GOP leadership spent millions backing appointed Sen. Luther StrangeLuther Johnson StrangeThe Trump Presidency: Year One Dems search for winning playbook Stephen Bannon steps down from Breitbart MORE (R-Ala.) against Moore to serve out the rest of Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsUnder pressure, Trump shifts blame for Russia intrusion Overnight Tech: Judge blocks AT&T request for DOJ communications | Facebook VP apologizes for tweets about Mueller probe | Tech wants Treasury to fight EU tax proposal Overnight Regulation: Trump to take steps to ban bump stocks | Trump eases rules on insurance sold outside of ObamaCare | FCC to officially rescind net neutrality Thursday | Obama EPA chief: Reg rollback won't stand MORE’s Senate term. But Moore received endorsements from President Trump, the National Republican Senatorial Committee and McConnell after winning the runoff against Strange.

Now, Washington Republicans are backpedaling. But it’s unclear what that means for the situation on the ground in Alabama, where Democrats haven’t held a Senate seat since 1996. 

While dozens of Republicans in Washington are calling on Moore to step aside if the allegations are true, Republicans in Alabama don’t think the story will resonate the same way for voters. Instead, they focused on the timing of the allegations, which come just four weeks before the election.

Paul Reynolds, the Republican national committeeman from Alabama, told The Hill that something about the timing of the accusation and the Post’s role breaking the story “doesn’t smell right.”

“My gosh, it's The Washington Post. If I’ve got a choice of putting my welfare into the hands of [Russian President Vladimir] Putin or The Washington Post, Putin wins every time,” he said.

“This is going to make Roy Moore supporters step up to the plate and give more, work more and pray more."

Jonathan Gray, an Alabama Republican strategist, noted that Alabama Republicans are not willing to put their Senate seat at risk, arguing that they’d rather vote for anyone over a Democrat.

“I think they’d rather put Satan up there and then get him removed in the next election than lose the chance to correct what they think has been an injustice for eight years,” Gray told The Hill. 

Quoting the Bible, Alabama state auditor and Moore supporter Jim Zeigler told the Washington Examiner that there is “nothing immoral or illegal here.”

“Maybe just a little bit unusual,” he admitted. 

Zeigler compared the allegations to Biblical relationships.

“Take Joseph and Mary,” Zeigler told the Examiner. “Mary was a teenager and Joseph was an adult carpenter. They became parents of Jesus." 

It’s too late for Moore to be removed from the ballot, according to Alabama state law, so even if Moore steps aside his name will remain on the ballot. Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill told The Hill that if Moore steps aside and still wins, the election will be "null and void" and the state will have to call another special election.

That means that Republicans have three options: stand by Moore and hope he wins, cut Moore loose and hope that he still wins and triggers another special election, or marshal forward a long-shot write-in campaign under threat that another Republican could split votes and hand the race to Jones.

It remains to be seen if Democrats will make a late-breaking investment in the race given the allegations and Senate Republicans’ disavowal. So far, Democratic committees have only made small investments in the race, given Alabama’s overwhelmingly Republican electorate.

Even after coast-to-coast victories for Democrats Tuesday night, party leaders still appeared wary about ramping up involvement on Wednesday.

Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom PerezThomas Edward PerezClinton’s top five vice presidential picks Government social programs: Triumph of hope over evidence Labor’s 'wasteful spending and mismanagement” at Workers’ Comp MORE reiterated that Jones remains an “underdog” in the race and that increased investment in state parties will help boost his candidacy. Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerDemocrats now attack internet rules they once embraced Schumer: Trump budget would ‘cripple’ gun background checks Schumer: Senate Republicans' silence 'deafening' on guns, Russia MORE (D-N.Y.) said they’re still “closely” watching the race.