WASHINGTON — There was a time when the question of whether to disown a candidate accused of sexually abusing a 14-year-old girl was fairly straightforward.
But the divisions in the Republican Party run so deep that the latest rallying cry for many on the right has become the case of Roy S. Moore, the Senate candidate in Alabama who faces allegations of preying on many young women, including a 14-year-old, when he was in his 30s.
The debate among Republicans over what to do about Mr. Moore has taken on a significance that extends far beyond Alabama’s borders. It pits ascendant forces in the party — the most conservative evangelical Christians and insurgent, anti-establishment populists — against the Republican leadership in Washington. And it is being fanned by many of the same emotions that helped stoke President Trump’s rise and election: a mistrust of government, a desire for a leader who disdains and disrupts the political status quo, and a suspicion that elected officials will stop at nothing to hold on to power.
In the center of this caldron is Mr. Moore, an unlikely and highly flawed hero for many conservatives, who have come to see him as a convenient scapegoat for Republicans in Washington who want to quash their grass-roots uprising.
“People are fed up with the ruling class in Washington and their attitude ‘We know better than you do,’” said Ed Martin, a conservative commentator and protégé of Phyllis Schlafly, a conservative icon. “They think we’re barbarians. And we’re here at the gate.”
The statement by the Alabama Republican Party on Thursday that it stood by Mr. Moore and “trusts the voters” to decide whether he should be elected to the Senate underlined the divisions between Washington and the grass roots. And the White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, made clear which side Mr. Trump was on, echoing that sentiment.
In recent days, some notable figures in the conservative movement have also given Mr. Moore cover. Stephen K. Bannon, Mr. Trump’s former chief strategist, who saw Mr. Moore’s upset primary victory against an establishment Republican as a turning point in the war he is waging against Washington, has told his associates that he is unwavering in his belief that Mr. Moore should fight on.
Sean Hannity of Fox News, who this week delivered Mr. Moore an ultimatum to answer for allegations of sexually predatory behavior, backed down on Wednesday night, telling his audience that Alabama voters — not him — should ultimately decide.
Those moves were a telling rebuke of Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, and other Republicans in Washington who have either called for Mr. Moore to leave the race or for his expulsion from the Senate should he be elected.
“This is an effort by Mitch McConnell and his cronies to steal this election from the people of Alabama and they will not stand for it!” Mr. Moore wrote on Twitter on Thursday. “I’m gonna tell you who needs to step down,” he continued in another post, “that’s Mitch McConnell.”
But many Republicans believe that trying to remove Mr. Moore from the race or expel him from the Senate if he wins would further enrage the party’s restive base and kill the small-dollar fund-raising that both political parties rely heavily on. And it would provide the kind of raw, angry grass-roots energy that Mr. Bannon says he needs to achieve his goal of ensuring that Mr. McConnell is not the Republican leader a year from now.
“Roy Moore would be a thorn in the Senate G.O.P. leadership’s side, and they would be happy to expel him hoping to both dissuade others and put down the Bannon rebellion,” said Erick Erickson, the Christian conservative writer and radio host who has argued that the debate over Mr. Moore should be viewed in the context of the much larger and more pitched battle between the party’s establishment and anti-establishment wings.
Party leaders, Mr. Erickson added, “are not as interested in the long-term consequences.” They just want to send a signal by defeating Mr. Moore that the conservative insurrection can and will be crushed, he added. Writing on his website recently, Mr. Erickson said, “I don’t blame the Roy Moore voters for thinking people are out to get them because people really are out to get them.”
Mr. Erickson, like Mr. Bannon, did not initially support Mr. Moore when the primary for the Senate seat vacated by Jeff Sessions, the attorney general, was a three-way contest. In the first round of voting, it was Mr. Moore against Senator Luther Strange, who was appointed to the seat and was supported by Mr. McConnell, and Representative Mo Brooks, a conservative favorite who is much less unpredictable and polarizing. But after Mr. Brooks did not make the runoff, conservatives say, they rallied behind Mr. Moore because of what he represents to them: someone who is under attack from the same Republicans they believe have long tried to marginalize religious conservatives.
That sense of marginalization is real for many. A caller into Rush Limbaugh’s radio program on Tuesday expressed similar suspicions, saying he believed Mr. Moore’s ouster would be the beginning of a purge of the party’s right wing. “But my worry,” said the caller, who identified himself as Jim from Missouri, “is the so-called conservatives in Congress are going to fall prey to this and throw this man under the bus. And then they’ll forever set a precedent for getting rid of conservative people that we might try to elect.”
Many on the right have openly wrestled with how quickly Mr. Moore should be judged and condemned.
“I think it’s complicated, and that is 100 percent the truth,” said Penny Young Nance, the president of Concerned Women for America, a Christian conservative group.
Ms. Nance said many conservatives were weighing a number of arguments and counterarguments: a suspicion of the national news media against the sense that Mr. Moore’s accusers seem credible, the fact that the 1970s and ‘80s, when he is accused of committing the acts, was “a different time,” and the fact that Republican Party leaders have tried to thwart him repeatedly throughout his career.
“It’s also about the people of Alabama making their own decisions instead of Washington foisting its opinion on them,” Ms. Nance added. “They need to decide. That’s part of what makes them so angry: Washington bureaucrats and elitists telling them what they need to do.”
The inclination to dig in on Mr. Moore could also be a symptom of a larger cultural shift in politics. Americans are more likely now to say that elected officials can still do their jobs in an ethical manner even if they have committed immoral personal acts, research has found. And no group seems to have come around on this question more drastically than white evangelical Protestants, according to one survey conducted before the election last year by the Public Religion Research Institute and Brookings.
More than seven in 10 were willing to overlook transgressions in a politician’s personal life, the survey said, compared with three in 10 who were asked the same question in 2011.
Published at Fri, 17 Nov 2017 22:46:40 +0000