Political News

Will Roy Moore's troubles draw national Democrats into Alabama race?

Posted November 9, 2017 1:15 p.m. EST

— Blue wave, meet crimson tide.

Democrats around the country are feeling their oats this week after a round of sweeping wins up and down the ballot on Tuesday. But there is another vote on the horizon that -- with the release of a shocking new report on Thursday -- might well have gone from a tempting opportunity to a moral and political imperative for the party to passionately contest.

Early Thursday afternoon, the Washington Post reported that Alabama's Republican nominee for the US Senate, Roy Moore, engaged in predatory sexual behavior with an underage girl more than 30 years ago. Other women quoted in the story say Moore, then in his 30s, approached them when they were in their teens, asked them on dates and, in at least one case, offered alcohol to a young woman not yet of drinking age.

Moore denied the allegations in a statement first published on Breitbart, calling its details a "fabrication" and "fake news."

The backlash from Washington was almost instant -- and not just from Democrats. Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby, along with a handful of Moore's potential future colleagues, made ominous noises. "If that's true," Shelby said of the allegations, "he doesn't belong in the Senate."

For Democrats, the new developments will add fuel to an already fiery internal debate over how much time and resources the party should invest in backing their own nominee, Doug Jones.

"There was going to be pressure to go all in even before the WaPo bombshell, but now there's really no choice," a Democratic strategist told CNN.

Still, engagement by the party in deep red Alabama, especially given the increasingly high profile of the race, will be fraught.

"Moore is a unique candidate. He has his own devoted followers and they are cultish in their devotion to him. So, it's unlikely that (the Post report) will erode any of his base support," Josh Moon, a columnist for the Alabama Political Reporter, told CNN. "But what it could do is push a few more Democrats to the polls, possibly get a few hesitant Republicans to crossover and keep more moderate Republicans at home. I think the last one is the big one."

Recent polling has shown Jones trailing Moore, but he's kept within striking distance. The Democratic National Committee, the face of the party "establishment," has mostly kept its head down -- their brand alone, in Alabama, could do more harm than help -- but a number of progressive grassroots groups have been active on the ground.

A spokeswoman for the organization called Indivisible, which has 35 groups in the state, said -- in a conversation before the Post story broke -- that staff in Alabama was on Wednesday conducting canvassing training. Failure by national Democrats to follow their lead, and make all necessary funds available to Jones, will be perceived by much of the base as an abdication of party principles.

Early in October, former Vice President Joe Biden visited to campaign with Jones. Georgia congressman John Lewis, the civil rights leader, has also endorsed him. Jones is best known as a former US Attorney for the northern district of Alabama who made his name by prosecuting a pair of Ku Klux Klan members responsible, along with others, for the deadly 1963 bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham.

Still, there has been debate in Democratic circles over whether the party would be wise to engage in deep red Alabama. The argument in favor mostly boils down to two words: Roy. Moore.

The nominee has a jarring history of hateful anti-gay rhetoric and behavior. Moore was ousted as chief justice of the Alabama supreme court in 2003 after refusing to remove a 5,000-pound granite block emblazoned with the Ten Commandments from the court building. In 2016, three years after being re-elected to the same job, Moore was suspended after ordering probate judges not to recognize same-sex marriages. He resigned the post this spring to launch his Senate bid.

In 2005, Moore said in an interview that "homosexual conduct" should be illegal and, as CNN's K-File reported on Thursday morning, while presiding over a 1996 divorce case, he banned a woman who had a lesbian affair from visiting her children unsupervised or with her partner.

That the new charges against Moore landed in the midst of a sweeping national movement to out alleged sexual predators, in particular powerful men in the entertainment industry and media, will only heighten pressure from the grassroots for Democrats to dig deep and resist Moore. (CNN hosted a pre-planned town hall, "Tipping Point: Sexual Harassment in America," on Thursday night.)

But the hunger for a fight down south was mounting well ahead of Thursday's bombshell.

Victory in the Virginia gubernatorial race on Tuesday, where Democratic Governor-elect Ralph Northam held off Republican challenger Ed Gillespie, who channeled some of Trump's most divisive talking points during the campaign, stoked the base, as did Democratic Governor-elect Phil Murphy's romp in New Jersey.

Perhaps even more exciting -- and emboldening -- for activist groups on the left were the surprising gains made in an series of mostly quiet, but fiercely fought down-ballot contests, most notably in the the Commonwealth's House of Delegates. Democrats, who lost almost a thousand state legislative seats nationally over the past decade, began to dig themselves out on Tuesday, expanding the map and challenging for seats they'd previously dismissed as a lost cause.

With optimism about 2018 now soaring, grassroots groups are expecting a surge in fundraising and the emergence of new candidates -- a secondary wave of newly ambitious contenders invigorated by success on Election Day 2017 and fueled by a desire to turn back the tides of Trumpism.

At least, that's the plan. Whether this brief era of good feelings reaches into the new year could now come down to the party's playbook in Alabama.