The move should have been shocking. Just weeks ago, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said he believed the women ― nine, now ― who credibly accuse Moore of pursuing a relationship with them as minors, and in some cases, sexually abusing them when they were as young as 14.
McConnell and many other Republicans in Congress called for Moore to drop out of the race, and the RNC yanked its support.
But somehow, Moore is still running neck and neck with Democrat Doug Jones. The RNC, smelling a crucial Senate victory, jumped back into the race this week. President Donald Trump offered his full-throated endorsement of the accused sex abuser. And the only Republican in Congress who protested the party’s re-embrace of Moore was Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), an outspoken Trump critic who has already announced his retirement.
It’s a familiar story. A year ago, when 16 women accused Trump of sexual misconduct and the infamous Access Hollywood tape emerged of him bragging about grabbing women “by the pussy,” Republicans in Congress largely denounced the GOP presidential nominee. The RNC directed funds away from Trump to down-ballot candidates less than a month before the election and temporarily halted its “Victory” program to help elect him. And more than two dozen lawmakers either withdrew their endorsements of Trump or called for him to step down and let his running mate, Mike Pence, take his place.
But Trump refused to drop out of the race, the scandal passed, and the GOP re-embraced him, calculating that a Republican president accused of sexually assaulting women was still better than a Democrat. And the fact that the party is repeating this pattern with Moore ― treating sexual assault like a relatively insignificant political scandal ― suggests that the GOP will tolerate and even embrace serial abusers going forward.
“It’s not only a dangerous move, it’s a horrible move,” said Susan Del Percio, a GOP strategist. “Republicans in 2016 said, ‘We know all the problems with Donald Trump,’ and they stayed with him as the party’s nominee.”
“But fast-forwarding a year to today, given the amount of light since shed on sexual assault and the awareness, it’s even more dangerous now,” she said. “Frankly, the Republicans and Donald Trump should be very concerned about now what the Republican Party can be branded as going into 2018 as a result of this decision to back Roy Moore.”
The GOP’s strategy has always been to let voters decide whether a potential serial abuser is still a viable candidate. When it became clear in late 2016 that Trump could still win the presidential election, Republicans who had distanced themselves from him quickly fell back in line behind him. When he won, RNC Chair Reince Priebus joined his administration.
And on Tuesday, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), a very senior member of the Republican Party, acknowledged that a winning amount of votes can basically expunge sexual misconduct from a politician’s record.
The strategy is working, for now. Moore is surging in the polls.
But if Moore wins, it will set a troubling precedent for future Republican candidates. It means that men who have assaulted women and girls, despite this unprecedented moment of reckoning, still have a chance to run the country, because the GOP will still write them a check. And it means the party treats sexual assault and even child abuse with all the gravity of a gaffe on the campaign trail.
“These accusations came five weeks before an election,” said Del Percio. “Should the voters of Alabama support him, they’re putting a different priority ahead of what most Americans believe, which is first you protect our children.”