National News

Many gop blunders put seat at risk, even before scandal

Posted December 13, 2017 12:04 a.m. EST
Updated December 13, 2017 12:26 a.m. EST

Voters exits a polling station at the Norwood Community Center in Birmingham, Ala., Dec. 12, 2017. Voters were headed to the polls Tuesday to decide between Roy Moore, a Republican, and Doug Jones, a Democrat, in a strange and ugly special Senate election. (Bob Miller/The New York Times)

MOUNTAIN BROOK, Ala. — For Republicans, it did not have to come to this.

After a fraught campaign that tested the country’s tolerance for political sideshows, Roy Moore, the party’s Senate nominee, lost to the Democrat Doug Jones in a special election on Tuesday. Even before the race, Republican leaders in Alabama and Washington had taken to describing Moore as a kind of biblical plague — a punishing force inflicted on them, and outside their control.

But for all his local fame and notoriety, Moore was never an inevitability in the Senate race. Nor was it inevitable that Alabama would hold a Senate election this year at all, let alone one that the Democrats would win.

To grasp the sheer improbability of the election unfolding here, consider the improbable — and improbably ill-fated — decisions that Republican leaders made to bring things to this point.

Choice No. 1: The Vacancy

It began with President Donald Trump’s selection of Jeff Sessions to serve as his attorney general — a favor to a fierce political ally, whom Trump soon turned against. By naming Sessions, the president ensured, at the very least, that there would be a raucous Republican primary in a turbulent red state. Had Trump named a non-senator to the job, no such election would have taken place.

Choice No. 2: The Appointment

When Sessions abandoned the Senate, it fell to Robert Bentley, Alabama’s embattled governor, to pick a replacement. He had myriad options, with state legislators and members of Congress begging for the job. Sen. Mitch McConnell, the majority leader, lobbied Bentley to consider naming a woman to the seat.

But Bentley went a different route, choosing Luther Strange, the state attorney general — who was at the time investigating Bentley. The appointment was seen as tainted from the start. Strange, however, believed he would have time to settle into the seat before defending it in a 2018 special election.

Choice No. 3: The Date

Bentley helped set this process in motion, but he left office before he could see it through. After he resigned in a deal with prosecutors, his successor, Kay Ivey, surprised national Republicans by rescheduling the special election. She moved it from November 2018 to a random Tuesday in December of this year, amputating half of Strange’s borrowed term and forcing an early reckoning for the unpopular appointee.

Choice No. 4: The Primary

If Strange was viewed uneasily in Alabama, he was fully embraced in Washington. McConnell backed him forcefully in his bid for a full term and committed millions through a super PAC to aiding his candidacy. But in defending Strange from his Republican rivals, McConnell’s allies chose not to attack Moore, believing that Strange could defeat him in a one-on-one race.

Instead, they made devastating attacks on Rep. Mo Brooks, an arch-conservative lawmaker whom they viewed as a Senate gadfly in the making. Brooks’ campaign crumbled — and the bulk of his support migrated to Moore, helping him trounce Strange in a September runoff election.

Trump, meanwhile, was an inconsistent ally of Strange, endorsing him on Twitter and holding a campaign event to rally support, but also musing publicly at that rally about whether he had erred in his endorsement. The event may have done more harm than good.

Choice No. 5: The Nominee

With the Republican nomination in hand, Moore presented Republican leaders with a searing and seemingly binary choice: Embrace a man they saw as a loathsome extremist, in the hope of saving a Senate seat, or shun him and write off the election as a loss to Doug Jones, the Democrat.

They chose, instead, a worst-of-both-worlds middle path, nominally endorsing Moore but closing their checkbooks to him, and leaving him to fend for himself in the race. That approach was just distant to enough to leave Moore gasping — unable to raise money to answer Jones’ television commercials — and just supportive enough so that when Moore found himself facing multiple allegations of improper sexual behavior or unwanted advances with teenage girls, party leaders had to answer for Moore.

Had any one of a number of Republicans made any one of those choices differently — from creating the initial vacancy to halfheartedly accepting Moore in September — the party might not be staring at electoral humiliation in the Deep South.

The outlandish political circumstances are not lost on people here: At a rally for Jones on Monday night, Charles Barkley, the former basketball star, marveled at the sheer bizarreness of the race.

“If somebody sent you this as a movie script,” he said, “you’d throw it in the trash.”