Roy Moore’s sexual misconduct scandal is metastasizing beyond Alabama into the 2018 battle for Congress.
Democrats have quickly seized on accusations that the Republican Senate hopeful assaulted and harassed teenage girls, trying to lash other GOP hopefuls to the reeling Alabama candidate and use the outcry to raise money.
“This is precisely what we’ve warned about when discussing the importance of election quality candidates in GOP primaries,” said Josh Holmes, a former chief of staff to McConnell. “The opposition will ascribe their liabilities to candidates all across the country.”
Democrats are hardly irreproachable on the sexual harassment issue. The allegation Thursday that Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) forcibly kissed a woman against her will a decade ago could complicate attempts to use Moore against other Republicans. Franken now faces a likely ethics investigation into his conduct, and a slew of Democrats have donated campaign cash from Franken’s leadership PAC to charity.
But the alleged sins of Moore — accused of engaging in unwanted contact, sexual and otherwise, with teenagers as a single man in his 30s — appear to be in a different category. And other Republicans are being asked to answer for them.
The Moore situation presents a complicated choice for Republican candidates facing tough 2018 primaries: Side with Moore and risk suburban swing voters will think you’re defending a pedophile; call for him to drop out and risk hardcore conservative voters believing you’re buying into a liberal witch hunt. And while Democratic strategists say they don’t expect Moore himself to be a central plank of any candidate’s 2018 campaign six months from now, they are working to ensure the overall Republican brand is associated with Moore more broadly as a way of tarnishing it early in the cycle.
While national Democrats want to avoid the appearance of diving into the race in deep-red Alabama, the party has used the Moore accusations to attack candidates from Ohio Senate candidate Josh Mandel, to Arizona Rep. Martha McSally, to South Carolina gubernatorial candidate Catherine Templeton. All three were criticized for refusing to take sides on whether Moore should drop out of the race.
“You can say we didn’t respond,” a Mandel spokeswoman initially told the Associated Press.
By Thursday, Mandel had come to a decision. “I agree with @IvankaTrump. If these allegations are true, Roy Moore must step down,” he wrote on Twitter.
The DSCC still hasn’t commented on the allegations against Moore, and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumerrepeatedly declared it was an “Alabama race” at a news conference last week at the Capitol.
But American Bridge, the Democratic opposition research group, has been more aggressive. It released digital ads attacking Mandel, McSally and Nevada GOP Sen. Dean Heller. “What does Josh Mandel have to say about his party’s nominee?” the ad asks of the Republican Senate candidate, after showing clips of local news coverage of the Moore scandal.
Meanwhile, local reporters are pressing Republican candidates for their stances on Moore. While Missouri attorney general and Senate candidate Josh Hawley drew headlines for his decision last week to investigate Google, local reporters also took the opportunity to ask him about Moore. Hawley said Moore should step aside “if these allegations are true.”
“I’m a lawyer,” he said, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “I don’t take anything that I read in the newspaper at face value on either side — from anybody. Facts are often complicated. I don’t know what the facts are in this case, but Judge Moore does.”
Democrats have also issued statements attacking other Republicans, including Virginia’s Corey Stewart, Indiana Rep. Todd Rokita and California Rep.Darrell Issa for failing to condemn Moore.
“This is smart psychological warfare that both parties implement to force the other side off message,” said Doug Thornell, a Democratic strategist at SKDKnickerbocker. “The longer Moore stays in the race the worse it gets for the GOP. Ironically, the worst-case scenario for Senate Republicans is if Moore actually wins and they are stuck with an alleged sexual predator and pedophile in their conference.”
Democrats are also using the situation to raise their own campaign cash. Both Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine and Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke have sent out a string of fundraising emails about Moore in recent days, denouncing their opponents’ ties to the Alabamian.
“Corey Stewart, who wants to represent all Virginians in the Senate, believes that Roy Moore’s disgusting and predatory behavior should not be condemned,” Kaine’s digital director told his backers in a Monday fundraising email, referring to the former Trump Virginia campaign chairman who is challenging Kaine.
“It’s not that complicated, Ted Cruz: we’re talking about potentially elevating a man who preyed on young girls to the U.S. Senate,” added the campaign team for O’Rourke, who is challenging Cruz, on Friday. Cruz has since rescinded his Moore endorsement.
In a Quinnipiac University poll released last week, 63 percent of registered voters nationwide said Moore should drop out and just 23 percent said he should stay in the race. Among Republicans, the divide is much smaller: 42 percent said Moore should drop out, while 38 percent said he should stay in. Thirty-one percent of Republicans approve of how GOP leaders have handled the accusations, while 29 percent disapprove.
The Moore situation has also inflamed tensions between the establishment and activist wings of the GOP. For mainstream Republicans, one man alone is responsible for the Moore mess: Bannon, who endorsed him late in the race and has emerged as a key backer of right-wing GOP candidates running anti-McConnell campaigns.
“Steve Bannon needs GOP chaos in order for his business model to work,” Senate Leadership Fund spokesman Chris Pack said. “Without it, Bannon couldn’t afford to fly around the country in private jets with a 24-7 security detail.” (Senate Leadership Fund has previously downplayed Bannon’s role in Moore’s election.)
A Republican strategist aligned with Bannon, who wasn’t authorized to speak on the record, noted Bannon didn’t know about the allegations against Moore — and neither did establishment Republicans, who spent millions researching and attacking him. Bannon’s wing of the party also blames establishment Republicans for attacking Rep. Mo Brooks in the first round of the primary, forcing Sen. Luther Strange into a race against Moore that they argue Strange was destined to lose.
The situation is even more awkward for Bannon-aligned Republicans. Some Bannon-aligned Republicans, including Wisconsin’s Kevin Nicholson, Tennessee’s Marsha Blackburn and Montana’s Matt Rosendale, have suggested Moore should drop out of the race.
But another one of Bannon’s army of insurgents, Nevada’s Danny Tarkanian, who is challenging Sen. Dean Heller in the GOP primary, has said he doesn’t think Moore should leave the contest.
“I’m deeply troubled by the character assassination campaign now being directed at Judge Roy Moore in the Alabama U.S. Senate race,” Tarkanian said. “People have every reason to be skeptical about the timing and nature of these attacks, especially with reported media payoffs and partisan attack dogs involved.”
That drew a sharp rebuke from Heller’s campaign.
“This is the worst moment in Danny Tarkanian’s sad political career,” spokesman Keith Schipper said.
Holmes and other establishment Republicans, meanwhile, argue this is just the beginning of the party’s Bannon-induced headaches.
“His first candidate was a pedophile. It doesn’t really get worse,” he said. “If Moore serves in the U.S. Senate, who knows where it will go.”
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