photo by Erik (HASH) Hersman
Although voters have been known to surprise pollsters, as Hillary Clinton knows all too well, former judge Roy Moore seems poised to win a U.S. Senate seat in tomorrow’s special election in Alabama.
How long he’ll keep it is another matter entirely.
When Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey set dates for a special election to fill Jeff Sessions’ vacant Senate seat, the question was not whether a Republican would win, but which one. Luther Strange, a former state attorney general who held Sessions’ vacant seat, had been appointed by Ivey’s predecessor, Robert Bentley. At the time of the appointment, Bentley said he would not call a special election as per Alabama state law, citing the expense such an election would entail.
Bentley, however, resigned after pleading guilty to charges of violating campaign finance and ethics laws. Ivey set the special election in motion, noting in a press release that “following the law trumps the expense of a special election.” Despite support from prominent national Republicans including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and President Trump, Strange lost decisively to Moore in the primary.
Under normal circumstances, a Republican candidate who wins the primary in Alabama faces a smooth road to the U.S. Senate. The state has not sent a Democrat to the Senate since 1992 – and that campaign re-elected incumbent Sen. Richard Shelby, who became a Republican in 1994 and continues to serve today. The state elected its last Democrat who stayed a Democrat in 1990. But the serious allegations of sexual misconduct Moore now faces seemed, for a time, as if they might shift the balance against him despite the state’s deep-red history. Or at least it seemed that way to certain observers, mostly outside Alabama.
While many national Republicans sought to distance themselves from Moore as soon as the first allegations of sexual interactions with teenagers were revealed, GOP officials in Alabama held their ground. Despite criticism of Moore from McConnell, Sessions and House Speaker Paul Ryan, Alabama Republicans such as Secretary of State John Merrill have spoken in support of the candidate. Others, like state Rep. Mike Ball, have expressed the opinion that it is too late to oppose Moore at this point, since by the time the allegations became public, state law would not permit Republicans to remove Moore from the ballot.
The majority of the state’s voters, too, seem to be holding on despite disapproval of their candidate. While the margin is much closer than it was before Moore’s accusers stepped forward in early November, polls still show Moore leading his opponent, Democrat Doug Jones. A drift away from Moore will likely make Tuesday’s voting closer than it otherwise would have been, and has at least made it conceivable for a Democrat to win, but that is not the likeliest outcome.
The fact that Alabama Republicans have not abandoned Moore does not mean they necessarily condone either his past conduct or the manner in which he addressed it when it was raised during the campaign. It probably reflects, to a considerable degree, a more pragmatic approach: Because of the way Alabama’s election law works, it was impractical to replace Moore on tomorrow’s ballot with another Republican. Regardless of the party’s actions in November, Moore would have appeared on the ballot as the Republican candidate; any potential Republican opponent would have had to run a write-in campaign, almost certainly a doomed effort unless Moore dropped out of the race.
So turning against Moore now would almost certainly mean putting a Democrat in the Senate. It would mean voting for – or at least not voting against – someone whose approach and alignment would be exactly opposite what most Alabamans want from their senators. This is not a state whose voters wish to make Chuck Schumer the Senate majority leader or to give Democrats a chance to block President Trump’s judicial appointments, among other things.
If Moore wins tomorrow, he will almost certainly take his seat in Washington, at least initially. It would be effectively unprecedented for his fellow senators to remove a duly elected member without so much as a hearing. But McConnell has previously promised that Moore, if elected, will face an ethics investigation almost immediately. Unless such an investigation discredits the most serious allegations against Moore, he will be under increasing pressure to either step down or face expulsion.
We can’t know what such an investigation will reveal, of course, but all signs point to Moore’s stint in the Senate being brief. Once Moore is removed, one way or another, Alabama’s Republican governor will appoint a new interim senator, most likely pending another special election well before Moore would otherwise have had to run again in 2020. This will likely ensure that the seat stays in Republican hands, which is exactly the way most Alabamans would want it.
Democrats will take the opportunity to contrast the GOP’s cooperation with, or at least failure to block, Moore’s seating and the national party’s swing behind his re-election in the campaign’s closing days with the pressure they exerted on Sen. Al Franken to resign, as he ultimately agreed to do last week. But Democrats had no real skin in that game. Franken’s seat will be filled almost immediately by another Democrat appointed by Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton, and many commentators thought Franken’s seat was in play in 2018 even before the scandal. Republicans, on the other hand, had no particular reason to handicap themselves in the tightly divided Senate before dealing with Moore. The party’s wing in Alabama recognized this before the national party did.
Of course, it is still possible that Alabamans will back Moore regardless of the ethics committee’s findings, just as national voters backed Trump despite the infamous Access Hollywood tape. Moore might be expelled, yet run and conceivably win the special election to succeed himself. That would be deeply unfortunate for many reasons, not least of which is that Moore’s record as a judge ought to disqualify him anyway. But I don’t live in Alabama, so I don’t get to pick the people who represent that state in Congress. Respecting democracy means respecting their right to do that for themselves.
Tomorrow, Alabamans will exercise that right. We’ll just have to wait to see what happens next.