Campaigning with Steve Bannon in Fairhope, Alabama, a week ago, Roy Moore struck a messianic note. “We’ve got to go back to God, we’ve got to go back to restore the morality of this country,” said the Republican candidate, who is running in a special election for Alabama’s Senate seat. Quoting Ephesians 6, Moore exhorted his supporters to “take up the armor of God” in what had become a spiritual battle for the nation’s soul. “We’ve struggled, but we’ve overcome,” Moore said. “And I think that on December 12 we’ll see an election that the world won’t forget.”
Moore has since retreated from the campaign trail, apparently to avoid uncomfortable questions about allegations that the 70-year-old molested and preyed on teenagers when he was in his 30s. But he does have reason to be hopeful that he has “overcome” those charges: After being abandoned by his party in the immediate aftermath of the allegations in October, mainstream Republicans—including President Donald Trump—have come rushing back, with the notable exception of Alabama’s senior senator, Richard Shelby. Electing a Republican was ultimately more important than Moore’s numerous drawbacks: the charges of pedophilia, his well-documented Islamophobia and homophobia, his contempt for the federal judiciary, even his bizarre comments about slavery, which in earlier years would have been enough to sink a candidate.
Moore is also right that this is an election that won’t soon be forgotten. Win or lose, Moore’s candidacy will haunt the Republican Party for a long time.
The decision to stand behind Moore is a foolishly short-term one. Trump, who like most Republicans backed the establishment candidate Luther Strange in Alabama’s primary, is eager to prove that he’s still a kingmaker, even with poll numbers in the 30s. In the last big election, Virginia’s gubernatorial race in November, Trump’s favored candidate, Ed Gillespie, lost. If Trump can’t get a win in deep-red Alabama, then that will undermine his clout with other Republicans, whose relationship with the president is partly based on whether he can help them win elections.
Trump has another reason for supporting Moore, one that he shares with congressional Republicans. The GOP enjoys a slim majority in the Senate—with only 52 Republican senators, three “no” votes can sink any legislation passed by simple majority. While Republicans were able to pass a tax reform package with 51 votes, they’ve been stymied in their attempt to repeal Obamacare. Moore, who has campaigned against Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the GOP establishment as much as he’s campaigned against his Democratic opponent Doug Jones, will be more of an unpredictable vote than a generic Republican. But he’ll still be more reliable than Jones.
Recent precedent may have also played a role in the decision to back Moore. It was Trump himself who survived multiple allegations of sexual misconduct to prevail in his election. After the release of the Access Hollywood tape in October 2016, numerous Republicans jumped ship when it looked like Trump was about to lose badly, only to come back into the fold when partisan considerations reasserted themselves. Trump won and Republicans were rewarded with a unified Republican government. All’s well that ends well.
But though Trump won the election, that doesn’t mean that his party has paid no consequences for supporting him. Trump’s victory resulted in an enormous, complex backlash that we are only just beginning understand. Early indicators suggest that Republicans are heading toward a bloodbath in the 2018 midterms, which will be a referendum on Trump’s presidency and what Trump stands for: misogyny, yes, but also much more, including xenophobia, racism, and a disdain for the rule of law.
Backing Moore only makes the GOP’s Donald Trump problem worse. Taken together, Moore and Trump represent the worst of the contemporary Republican Party. Democratic ads in 2018 and beyond will surely make the connection. An accused child groper and an admitted pussy-grabber: This is the Republican Party that must be voted out.
But it gets worse. Even before Moore came along, the Republican Party’s reputation was in terrible shape. Republicans in Congress have spent most of the year trying to take health care away from millions and giving massive tax cuts to millionaires, billionaires, and corporations—all while raising taxes on millions of middle-class taxpayers. The embrace of an alleged child predator for the sake of passing a massive tax giveaway to the wealthy is a plotline so on-the-nose it would be rejected by Veep.
And yet here we are. It’s no wonder that only 28 percent of millennials think that Republicans care for “people like them,” according to a recent poll. Trump, tax reform, Obamacare repeal, Moore—these are things that will take more than an election cycle to recover from. These are toxic people and toxic policies, and to combine them will have severe repercussions. In 2016, Trump was often treated as an aberration, by both Democrats and the media. Eleven months into Trump’s presidency, it’s simply impossible to make the argument that he and Moore are outsiders. They are the Grand Old Party, and that doesn’t change even if Moore loses, as some Republicans privately hope he will.
Democrats learned this year that the past will haunt you in unpredictable ways. Many on the left are just beginning to reckon with the consequences of Bill Clinton’s sexual misconduct and Democrats’ decision to stick by him in the 1990s. That alone should alarm any Republican supporting Moore for short-term reasons, or even out of antipathy toward liberals.
Moore may very well win on Tuesday. But regardless of the outcome, Republicans have already lost. Even a strong finish by Moore won’t help a party that’s so tethered to Trump and the culture war that it just backed a credibly accused child molester for the Senate. Moore’s candidacy is evidence of a rot in the GOP that is not simply here to stay—it’s growing.