“If I were in Alabama, I would run to the polling place to vote for the Democrat,” said Arizona Republican Sen. Jeff Flake on Monday. He was referring to next month’s special U.S. Senate election in Alabama, where Democrat Doug Jones is running against Republican Roy Moore, who has been accused of initiating unwanted sexual contact with two teenage girls.
We don’t necessarily expect a lot of other Republicans to endorse Jones. But a number of Republican senators have said that Moore should drop out. Some have also encouraged a write-in bid by an “establishment” Republican such as Sen. Luther Strange, who lost to Moore in the primary. Meanwhile, Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner, who heads the National Republican Senatorial Committee, has said that Moore should be expelled from office even if he wins.
With this menu of complicated and undesirable options in front of Republicans, we probably ought to ask a few questions — such as: Would Republicans really be better off if the Democrat wins in Alabama? And if not, what should they do about Moore?
Could a Republican write-in bid work? It’s not quite right to say there are no good outcomes for Republicans in Alabama. Although it’s too late to remove Moore’s name from the ballot, a Republican such as Strange could run a write-in campaign.
But the write-in campaign might not succeed — and it could split the GOP vote, making a win by Jones more likely. There’s some question about whether, even under these unique circumstances, there are enough people willing to vote Democratic in Alabama to get Jones 50 percent of the vote. But if Jones needs only, say, 43 percent to come out with the plurality — or 38 percent, or 34 percent, depending on how votes split between the other candidates — his task is easier. For instance, an Opinion Savvy poll found that a Strange write-in bid would receive only 12 percent of the vote — and would draw more votes from Moore than Jones, enough to put Jones narrowly ahead in the race.
Republicans could also hope that Moore withdraws — but that’s no guarantee that Strange would be elected. Strange isn’t especially popular and wasn’t doing any better against Jones than Moore was in polls before the allegations against Moore came to light. One can imagine extremely depressed turnout among Alabama Republicans if Moore withdrew and Strange, a candidate they’d already rejected, were foisted upon them again.
Moore would probably also get a fair number of votes even if he quit the race. When Republican Dierdre Scozzafava withdrew just days before a special election in New York’s 23rd Congressional District in 2009, she still wound up with 6 percent of the vote, after having polled at about 20 percent before her withdraw. And in my experience working with data from the presidential primaries, candidates typically retain somewhere in the neighborhood of 20 percent to 25 percent of their pre-withdraw polling average if they quit a race but their names still appear on the ballot. Since Moore is polling in the 40s in most polls, that would imply he’d finish with 8 percent to 12 percent of the vote even if he withdrew — or perhaps slightly more if some Alabamians voted for him as a protest against how he was treated by the Republican establishment.
So a successful write-in bid isn’t impossible, but it wouldn’t be easy. Therefore, let’s consider three other outcomes from the GOP’s standpoint: Jones winning; Moore winning and staying in office; and, finally, Moore winning and being expelled.
How bad is it for Republicans if Jones wins? It’s really bad. Having Jones in office would reduce the GOP margin in the Senate to 51-49, meaning that Republicans could afford only one defection on legislation such as tax reform. For example, if both Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine and Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska opposed a bill and everyone else voted along party lines, it would fail by one vote.
Moreover, whoever wins the special election will serve out the remainder of former Sen. Jeff Sessions’s term, which runs through January 2021. Having Jones in office already would make it considerably easier for Democrats to win the Senate in the 2018 midterms: With a win banked in Alabama, flipping Flake’s open seat in Arizona1 and Republican Sen. Dean Heller’s in Nevada would be enough to put Democrats in control of the Senate — provided (and it’s a big provision) that Democrats didn’t lose any of their own seats.
To play devil’s advocate: One could argue that control of the Senate in 2019 and 2020 isn’t all that high-stakes. Because there are so few Republican-held seats up for election next year in that chamber, winning control of the Senate is a tougher proposition for Democrats than is taking the House. So, if Democrats somehow win the Senate, they’ll probably already have won the House — and will already be able to block President Trump and Republicans from passing key legislation.
Another silver lining for Republicans is that Jones — looking to win re-election in Alabama — might vote with the GOP on some issues. He could behave similarly to West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, for instance, who has taken Trump’s position on 54 percent of roll-call votes so far.
But that would be a dangerous game for Republicans. Even if there isn’t much legislation passed, Senate control has major consequences, including for Supreme Court nominations and Cabinet picks, in the establishment of committees and commissions to investigate Trump, and in determining which party would oversee an impeachment trial against the president. Moreover, the policy positions that Jones has articulated look more liberal than Manchin’s; he might side with Republicans on some issues, but not necessarily on the most pivotal votes.
How bad is it for Republicans if Moore wins and remains in the Senate? It’s really bad. The inverse of Jones sometimes voting with Republicans is the likelihood that Moore would sometimes vote against Republican leadership. Moore’s policy positions actually aren’t all that different from Republican leadership on issues such as health care and taxes — he’s a culture warrior but not an economic populist. However, he likes to pick fights with the Republican “establishment” and might try to undermine Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. (That McConnell has said Moore should get out of the race would likely only make the antagonism worse.) A good analogy might be to Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, who has somewhat heterodox political views and is generally an unpredictable vote for McConnell.
But let’s not neglect the much greater consequence, which is that Republicans — if they didn’t expel Moore — would be seen as aiding and abetting, or at least tolerating, someone who has credibly been accused of being a serial child molester. There’s precedent for voters caring about this sort of thing: In 2006, most voters thought Republican leadership was too slow to take action against Republican Rep. Mark Foley, who sent sexually explicit messages to underage congressional pages. That was a contributing factor to a political environment that cost Republicans both the House and the Senate.
Moore’s case is potentially even more explosive. A plurality of voters already disapprove of how Republicans are handling the allegations against Moore, according to a Quinnipiac poll that was released on Tuesday. The conduct that Moore is accused of is more severe, involving physical assault. And he has a somewhat Trumpian penchant for drawing attention to himself — serving as every liberal’s worst caricature of what it means to be a Republican. Keeping one rather erratic Republican vote in place might not be worth it for McConnell if it further hurts the Republican brand and puts more House and Senate members at electoral risk next year.
How bad is it for Republicans if Moore wins and is expelled by the Senate? It’s really bad. This is the least predictable of the bad outcomes, however. There are cases in which expulsion could turn out to be relatively smooth for Republicans and others in which it would be the most disastrous option of all.
Although no senator has been expelled since 1862, the Senate probably has the constitutional power to expel Moore, which requires a two-thirds majority.2 In McConnell’s perfect world, all but a handful of Republicans would vote for expulsion, and all or almost all Democrats would come along, avoiding a protracted debate. Another special election would be scheduled, which could have an unpredictable outcome (more on that below) — but as a bonus for Republicans, Republican Gov. Kay Ivey could appoint an interim replacement for Moore, presumably Strange or another “establishment” Republican.
But that’s if everything goes relatively well — and at every stage, there’s the chance it might not. The expulsion process itself is somewhat fraught; it would probably require committee hearings at which Moore and his accusers could be compelled to testify. At a minimum, it would be a distracting political circus at a time when Republicans were hoping to pass tax reform and other legislative priorities.
Then there’s the question of whether McConnell would have the votes. For the time being, expulsion might seem like a relatively attractive option for Republicans — but there’s already some disagreement within the Republican caucus. There might be more once Moore was elected and Republicans had to consider the consequences of overriding the popular will for a senator whose alleged conduct was publicly known at the time of the vote. Democrats could play games with the process by withholding their votes, forcing the GOP to come up with more Republican votes instead. Perhaps most risky of all: Trump has yet to weigh in on expulsion, and he could use the occasion to go “nuclear” on McConnell by opposing it.
Finally, Republicans might face the same dilemma after the next special election. Moore could run again and win again. And Jones or another Democrat might also have a shot. So the worst-case scenario for Republicans is that Moore is expelled after an extremely contentious process that further poisons the relationship between the GOP base and GOP leadership — and then Moore (or Jones) wins the next special election anyway.
So, what should McConnell do? I really don’t know. But there’s an argument that all of the other outcomes are so bad that Republicans might as well try their luck with a write-in campaign.
Let’s say that without a write-in, the odds are 60 percent that Moore wins and 40 percent that Jones wins and that with a write-in, the odds are 50 percent Jones, 25 percent Moore, and 25 percent Strange. So, sure, the write-in campaign makes Jones more likely to win. But it reduces Moore’s chances by more than it helps Jones’s chances — and if you’re truly indifferent between Jones and Moore, the trade-off is worth it for you.
Then again, it wasn’t so long ago that another Republican was credibly accused of sexually assaulting multiple women just a month or so before a major election. Many Republicans legislators called for the candidate to drop out. Instead the candidate stayed in the race and won — and the claims are rarely discussed today. As was the case with Trump, Republicans may decide that the only thing worse than living with Roy Moore is living without him.