WASHINGTON (AP) — Republican leaders in Washington are coming to grips with the possibility — perhaps even probability — that Alabama's Roy Moore will win his special election next Tuesday and join them in the capital.
Looking past allegations of sexual misconduct with Alabama teenagers, President Donald Trump formally endorsed Moore, and the Republican National Committee quickly followed suit, transferring $170,000 to the Alabama Republican Party to bolster Moore's candidacy.
"I think he's going to do very well. We don't want to have a liberal Democrat in Alabama, believe me," Trump said Tuesday during a lunch with Republican senators. "We want strong borders, we want stopping crime, we want to have the things that we represent and we certainly don't want to have a liberal Democrat that's controlled by Nancy Pelosi and controlled by Chuck Schumer, we don't want to have that for Alabama."
Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell, who had previously called on Moore to get out of the race, changed his rhetoric over the weekend, saying it was Alabama voters who should decide. On Tuesday, he told reporters that he hadn't had a "change of heart" and was simply reflecting the fact that Moore is clearly not exiting the race.
"Yeah, there's been no change of heart. I had hoped earlier he would withdraw as a candidate. That obviously is not going to happen," he said, adding that, if Moore is elected, "he would immediately have an Ethics Committee case, and the committee would take a look at the situation and give us advice."
Trump's decision to do away with any facade of distancing himself from the race suggests that he is increasingly confident in Moore's chances of victory despite the continued unease of some other Republicans.
The special election is next Tuesday for the seat once held by Jeff Sessions, now the U.S. attorney general. Although the polls have showed a narrowing contest with Democrat Doug Jones, Alabama is a strongly Republican state and Democrats generally have little chance there.
An RNC official confirmed late Monday that the committee would once again be supporting Moore after severing its fundraising ties to his campaign last month. On Tuesday, the official said the RNC had made two transfers to the state party: one for $50,000 and another for $120,000.
Trump's former chief strategist Steve Bannon attended a rally with Moore Tuesday evening, delivering a fiery call to rally voters behind the embattled Senate candidate. Bannon called GOP leaders in Congress "cowards" and attacked the party's 2012 presidential nominee Mitt Romney as a draft dodger. Romney had a draft deferment because of missionary work in France.
"The days of taking it silently are over," Bannon declared at a rally that drew hundreds of Moore supporters to a local farm in the southwestern corner of the state.
Weeks ago, when accusations of sexual misconduct with teenagers first surfaced, Trump's spokesman had said the president believed Moore would "do the right thing and step aside" if the allegations were true. One of the women alleges he initiated sexual contact when she was 14.
Moore has denied the allegations, saying "I do not know any of these women. I did not date any of these women I did not engage in any sexual misconduct with anyone."
Top Republicans had vowed to expel him from the Senate if he wins. Publicly and privately, GOP leaders described the allegations against Moore as credible and insisted there were no circumstances under which he should serve in the Senate.
But buoyed by the taste of his own success in Congress as the Republican tax bill inches closer to passage, Trump telephoned Moore on Monday to offer encouragement as well as support and also argued in a pair of tweets that Moore's vote was badly needed to push the president's policies forward.
"Democrats refusal to give even one vote for massive Tax Cuts is why we need Republican Roy Moore to win in Alabama," Trump tweeted. "We need his vote on stopping crime, illegal immigration, Border Wall, Military, Pro Life, V.A., Judges 2nd Amendment and more."
Trump first appeared to back Moore after his first choice, Sen. Luther Strange, lost the GOP primary for the seat once held by Attorney General Jeff Sessions. But the president went silent after The Washington Post reported on the allegations of sexual misconduct with two teens, ages 14 and 16, and efforts to date several others while Moore was a local prosecutor in his 30s.
By late last month, however, with pressure mounting from Bannon and other corners of his base, Trump was making clear that he preferred Moore, raising doubts about the candidate's accusers and criticizing Democrat Doug Jones as the "liberal puppet" of Democratic leaders Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi.