Why Roy Moore can still win in Alabama

Emily Maitlis
Presenter, BBC Newsnight
@maitlison Twitter

image copyrightGetty Images

One week ago we were reporting from Alabama. An extraordinary Senate race is being played out in this Deep South state - between a Democrat, Doug Jones, and the Republican candidate Roy Moore.

Roy Moore has been called many things in his political life: a racist, a homophobe, a man who has said American Muslims shouldn't stand for office and that gay sex should be made illegal. He is considered to occupy a place far to the right of any other elected senator.

But all that paled briefly into the background this week after allegations emerged in the Washington Post - a number of women came forward to claim he had made unwanted sexual advances - including, one said, when she was just 14 years old.

A second woman claiming she'd been assaulted by him aged 16 has now come forward as I write this.

Roy Moore is not new to public office. He's twice been elected Alabama Supreme Court justice. He's twice been fired from that post - once for refusing to remove a monument of the Ten Commandments from the Alabama Judicial Building.

The second time for directing judges to enforce the ban on same-sex marriage after state laws had overturned it.

This time around he has the backing of Steve Bannon, the arch strategist some credit with getting Trump into power. An ideologue who makes the president look like a moderate.

Democrats do not normally get a look-in in a redder-than-red state like Alabama. This time, though, it feels different. A growing number of Republicans there are supporting groups like Republicans for Doug, Republicans for Jones, GOP4DougJOnes and so on.

media caption'I was terrified' says Moore accuser

There is a nervousness from establishment Republicans about the way Moore is shifting their party to the extremes.

When we visited Roy Moore's tiny home town of Gallant, Alabama, we stumbled upon his relatives - still living in the place he grew up. His nephew - a policeman - was a Trump fan who said he'd only been interested in politics since Trump took office and would give it all up again the moment he left. He was keen to talk to us, but his wife quickly shut him down.

I understand better now why - the allegations of sexual assault against Moore were to surface less than 48 hours later.

At Doug Jones' office we got lucky, arriving there just as the Senate candidate himself turned up.

He granted us an interview and declared his rival "was going all out to divide people by race, sexuality, faith". He didn't hold back.

I messaged Moore's campaign manager - John Rogers - to tell him we had strong allegations from Doug Jones, and would he like to give Judge Moore a chance to respond. He came right back to me on text: What did he say? He wanted to know?

It struck me at the time that he responded too quickly. Now, once again, I see why - he believed I must have learned about the abuse claims. He wanted to hear what we knew.

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionThe vote is on 12 December

Roy Moore has insisted despite these sex abuse allegations he will continue to run for office. Perhaps he learned from Donald Trump's playbook - the Access Hollywood tape during the campaign. If you just sit out the claims, and say nothing, it will all go away. The voters ultimately didn't make them an election issue for Trump. Why would they in Alabama?

This story is riveting on many levels - not least what it's doing to the Republican Party more widely.

Some local lawmakers in Alabama have said it's better to have a sexual predator in office than a Democrat. One fell back on a fairly unusual biblical interpretation to justify the allegation.

Jim Zeigler, the Alabama State Auditor, told the Washington Examiner: "Take Joseph and Mary. Mary was a teenager and Joseph was an adult carpenter. They became parents of Jesus. There's just nothing immoral or illegal here, maybe just a little bit unusual."

Yes, that's a direct quote.

Others have suggested bringing back the establishment Republican candidate Moore beat in the Senate primaries. Luther Strange, they say, could enter the race as a "write in" candidate - one who doesn't appear on the ballot sheet but who voters can add in themselves - if they get the spelling right.

This seems like a tremendous idea - to Democrats - who know that a confused electorate could pretty much hand the senate seat to Doug Jones himself.

image captionDemocrat Doug Jones is running against Moore

The Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, has called on Roy Moore to "step aside", without even waiting to find out if the allegations are true.

Will Moore's fans care about this top-down edict? Almost certainly not. McConnell has never seen eye to eye with either Bannon or Moore. For Moore loyalists, it makes their candidate into something of a hero - the little guy battling big beasts on BOTH sides of the house.

Moore himself has questioned the timing of these allegations - made three weeks before polling day - and broken by a paper he would call the Liberal Media. He's even accused the Republican and Democrat parties of working together.

And what do we learn from this? Well, much depends ultimately on the result of this Senate race on 12 December.

Democrats I've been talking to tell me they truly believe they will win the seat. I began by laughing out loud at that suggestion. Now I'm not so sure.

But my gut feeling tells me Moore will still pull this off - if he can continue convincing voters that this is fake news at work. And if he can make 30-year-old men dating teenagers sound normal. And if he can quote the Bible to do the rest of his work for him then yes, this is a storm in a Dean and Delucca teacup.

Because this is Alabama where a lot of the things that shock other parts of America don't seem so out of step. Moore has already proved this is a place where you can turn up to vote on a horse, claim Obama is not born of an American passport and believe the 911 attacks were divine retribution. And no one seems to bat an eyelid.

They've voted him into office twice before. Why should women making claims he chooses not to hear make this time any different?

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