Moore digs in amid mounting GOP criticism

Embattled Alabama GOP Senate nominee Roy Moore resisted calls to leave the race Friday, a day after The Washington Post reported allegations that he had inappropriate sexual contact with a minor decades ago.

Moore continued to deny the allegations, even as a growing chorus of Republicans in Washington criticized him or cut ties with his campaign.

Republican lawmakers, including GOP leaders, have been quick to condemn the alleged conduct. But few have called on him to step down outright, unless the allegations are proven. 

The National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC), the Senate GOP’s campaign arm, has so far made the biggest move to cut ties with Moore since the allegations dropped. The NRSC removed its name from a joint fundraising committee with the candidate, the Republican National Committee and the Alabama Republican Party. 

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Moore’s position worsened Friday after the release of a poll by Decision Desk and Opinion-Savvy that found Moore tied with Democrat Doug Jones in the wake of the accusations. Prior to the report, Moore, a former state Supreme Court chief justice, had been the favorite to win the Dec. 12 special election. The poll, the first released since the allegations were published, raised the prospect of Moore costing the GOP a Senate seat in a heavily Republican state.

Moore, who has made a career on not shying away from controversy, has furiously denied the charges and promised he will not back down. And top state Republicans are falling in line behind their nominee, questioning the veracity of the allegations.

Moore has refused to leave the race. But even if he did, or was forced out, state law prohibits candidates from removing their names from the ballot this soon before Election Day. That would mean Republicans would be virtually gifting a deep-red Senate seat to Democrats for at least two years, a stunning development that would further imperil the Republican legislative agenda.

But if Moore stays in the race and wins, his status as a high-profile member of the party could do lasting damage to the Republican brand as the pivotal 2018 midterms approach.

“I don’t think there is a good option. Judge Moore is not good enough to stand by right now. The vote is not worth it,” one former high-level GOP aide told The Hill. 

“This is not someone you want to align with regardless — he’d be an albatross, whether this could be proven or not.”

In the Post story, Leigh Corfman, now 53, accuses Moore of touching her sexually over her underwear and moving her hand to touch him over his underwear in 1979, when she was 14 years old. She also said that Moore, who was 32 at the time, gave her alcohol on at least one occasion.

The age of consent in Alabama is 16, and Alabama law would have considered it second-degree sexual abuse if someone at least 19 years old has sexual conduct with a person between the ages of 12 and 15, according to the Post. Those laws are still on the books.

The story also details three other allegations by women who say they were 16 to 18 years old when Moore courted them. Those three women do not allege any sexual contact, outside of kissing, occurred with Moore. 

Moore repeated his denial of Corfman’s allegations during a Friday interview on Sean Hannity’s radio show.

“Allegations of sexual misconduct with her are completely false,” Moore said during the radio interview.

“I believe they are politically motivated. I believe they are brought only to stop a very successful campaign, and that’s what they are doing. I’ve never known this woman.”

But Moore also equivocated on whether he had dated teenagers who were above the legal age of consent when he was in his 30s.

"It would've been out of my customary behavior,” he told Hannity when pressed.

Moore’s campaign released another statement as the interview was airing that said he never gave alcohol to a minor or engaged in sexual misconduct.

Washington Republicans immediately began to issue statements distancing themselves from Moore and criticizing the alleged conduct.

“Not my state; not my chamber but this man is despicable and should step down. To call him ‘unfit’ is generous,” Rep. Carlos CurbeloCarlos Luis CurbeloHouse Republican: 'I worry about both sides' of the aisle on DACA House passes concealed carry gun bill 34 House Republicans demand DACA action this year MORE (R-Fla.) tweeted on Friday.

Curbelo, a top Democratic target in 2018, was one of the few Republicans to call on Moore to immediately step aside.

Sen. Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeSupreme Court takes on same-sex wedding cake case House approves motion to go to tax conference — with drama Trump really will shrink government, starting with national monuments MORE (R-Utah), who had endorsed Moore before the allegations surfaced, asked Moore’s campaign to remove him from fundraising pitches after Moore used his photo in a Thursday appeal that criticized the accusations. Lee unendorsed Moore on Friday, as did fellow Republican Sen. Steve DainesSteven (Steve) David DainesOvernight Finance: House approves motion to go to tax conference — with drama | GOP leaders to consider Dec. 30 spending bill | Justices skeptical of ban on sports betting | Mulvaney won't fire official who sued him Week ahead: House scrambles on spending bill | What's next on tax reform | Panel to vote on Fed chair nominee This is a tax bill, not tax reform MORE (Mont.).

But most Republicans did not call for him to resign immediately, instead arguing he should step aside if the allegations are true but not explaining what more would need to come out to convince them further.

“They are in a tough position, as what they do will be maligned on every side. It’s an impossible place to be,” the former top GOP aide said.

While Beltway Republicans might be distancing themselves, Moore’s fate is not up to them. Only the state party can remove Moore as the party’s nominee.

If neither the Alabama GOP nor Moore budges, he’ll remain on the ballot as an eligible candidate. 

If the state party or Moore chooses to withdraw his candidacy, Moore would still remain on the ballot but be ineligible to be certified the winner. So if Moore won despite officially leaving the race, another special election would follow.

Some national Republicans believe that the allegations will be enough for Jones to win the race, whether Moore remains on the ballot or not.

If Moore remains an active candidate, it’s possible that the allegations could depress turnout among Republicans, or even turn them into Jones voters. If Moore’s name is removed from the ballot, it’s unlikely that enough Republicans would turn out to vote for a placeholder candidate who wouldn’t even be able to hold the seat.

Some party members are reportedly considering convincing Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey (R) to move the date of the Dec. 12 special election to early next year, according to The New York Times. But Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill (R) told The Hill that he does not know whether the governor would have the power to change the date and voiced the unlikelihood of it given that some people have already cast a ballot.

Then there’s the long-shot prospect of a write-in candidacy. While Sen. Luther StrangeLuther Johnson StrangeGOP sen: ‘Just a fact’ Moore will face ethics complaint if elected Trevor Noah: Trump must be ‘morally degenerate’ to back Roy Moore Moore gets boost from Bannon in final days of campaign MORE (R-Ala.), who lost the primary to Moore, has remained mum on the prospect of a write-in, Sen. Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiMcConnell names Senate GOP tax conferees Week ahead: Trump expected to shrink two national monuments GOP on verge of opening Arctic refuge to drilling MORE (R-Alaska), who won her 2010 reelection through a write-in campaign, told reporters she’s talked to Strange about the possibility.

The state party is sticking by Moore for now, and a cavalcade of Alabama Republicans have flocked to Moore’s defense.

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State Auditor Jim Zeigler dismissed the charges to The Washington Examiner by evoking the biblical story of Mary and Joseph, noting that Jesus’s mother Mary was a teenager when she met Joseph, her eventual husband.

Jonathan Gray, an Alabama GOP strategist, told The Hill that he’s skeptical Alabama voters would believe the allegations.

“I’m not sure anybody in Alabama, other than those who are worried about their own political fortunes, are completely buying into allegations against Roy Moore,” Gray said. 

“There’s a credibility problem here, but it ain’t Roy Moore.”

With the baggage that Moore would bring into office if elected, some Republicans say they’d be fine with a write-in campaign sabotaging his chances and handing the seat to Democrats.

“If it comes to electing Doug Jones because you put a write-in candidate in there, I’m sure many would breathe a sigh of relief,” the former top GOP aide said.