A defiant Roy Moore brushed aside Donald Trump’s warning not to run for Senate again, telling POLITICO on Wednesday that Alabama voters are capable of deciding for themselves whether he’s fit for office.
“The president doesn’t control who votes for the United States Senate in Alabama,” Moore said in a phone interview. “People in Alabama are smarter than that. They elect the senator from Alabama, not from Washington, D.C.”
The scandal-plagued former judge said he is “seriously considering” running for Senate again and plans to decide in a “few weeks.”
Moore's recalcitrance comes as Republicans, including Trump, are warning him to stay out of the race against Democratic Sen. Doug Jones. Republicans view the Alabama contest as a linchpin of their Senate majority — ousting Jones in 2020 would give the GOP a larger cushion with the party mostly on defense on the Senate map.
Jones narrowly defeated Moore in a special election in 2017 amid allegations of sexual misconduct by Moore with young girls decades ago. Those allegations emerged after Moore won the GOP nomination by defeating the Trump-endorsed candidate, then-interim Sen. Luther Strange.
Trump tweeted Wednesday morning that he has "NOTHING" against Moore, despite the sexual misconduct allegations against the former judge. But, he wrote, Moore “cannot win, and the consequences will be devastating.” That came after Trump's son, Donald Trump Jr., also tweeted at Moore to steer clear of the race.
Top allies to Senate Republican leadership have made clear they view Moore as the best chance Democrats have to maintain the seat.
“We believe most Alabama Republicans realize that nominating Roy Moore would be gift wrapping this Senate seat for Chuck Schumer,” said Steven Law, president of Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC aligned with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
Moore is convinced he could capture his party's nomination in the face of the president's opposition again. He said some Republicans are fearful that he still has support in the state.
“They know I'll win," he said. "That's why they're upset."
He also continues to deny the multiple allegations of inappropriate behavior against him that were reported on during the 2017 race. “It was fake news then, [and] it’s fake news now,” Moore said.
Republicans have believed for weeks that Moore was likely to run for Senate again. They also acknowledge there’s little they can do to stop him, and that he has a hard-core base of supporters in the state that likely gives him both a high floor and low ceiling of support. Alabama election laws require winning a majority of the vote to secure a party nomination, so Moore could have an opening to make a runoff in a crowded primary field.
Opposition to his potential candidacy has been fairly unified throughout the party. Sen. Todd Young of Indiana, the National Republican Senatorial Committee chairman, had spoken with Trump in recent weeks and raised concerns about Moore, according to two people familiar with the discussion.
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Trump’s tweet Wednesday was widely praised by Republicans, who believe the president is uniquely able to chip away at Moore’s support given his popularity among the GOP base in deep-red Alabama.
The dynamics of the race "were different before the president weighed in, but they're fundamentally changed after the president weighed in,” said Josh Holmes, a top McConnell adviser. “I don't think Roy Moore could win a primary before the president weighed in, and I know he can't win one after the president weighed in.”
With or without Moore, the GOP contest appears wide open. Several Republicans are already running: Rep. Bradley Byrne, state Rep. Arnold Mooney, and Tommy Tuberville, the former head football coach at Auburn University.
Each of the candidates face hurdles to emerging from the field. Byrne, the first candidate in the race, had more than $2 million in the bank at the end of the first quarter. Though a potential problem looms: Byrne called on Trump to step aside from the presidential race in 2016 after the "Access Hollywood" tape. Though he eventually said he would vote for Trump and has been a staunch supporter since the president took office, it’s unclear whether he can clear the hurdles of his previous criticism.
Tuberville, meanwhile, has put together a strong campaign team of veteran consultants, but he's a first-time candidate without experience as a campaigner or fundraiser. Mooney, a staunch conservative, already earned the endorsement of Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) — but as a state representative, he also faces a battle to prove fundraising ability and broader support.
Leaders of the conservative Club for Growth are watching the race closely and have met with Mooney and Tuberville, who could both receive a major boost from an endorsement. The group opposes Byrne and would not back Moore if he does run. David McIntosh, the Club president, said they had “good meetings” with both Mooney and Tuberville.
“We are waiting to see if either put together a great campaign and raise the money necessary to be competitive,” McIntosh said.
If Moore does run, as appears likely, Republicans' goal would be to defeat him outright and deny him a spot in a runoff. But given his potentially unshakable base of support in the state, some Republicans acknowledge it’s possible he could make a runoff again as he did in 2017. One Republican working on the race, who requested anonymity to discuss internal strategy, said polling had shown about 15 percent of the primary electorate views Moore “very" favorably. This Republican said in a crowded field, Moore would be unlikely to grow his support beyond that.
A second Republican involved in the race, however, said Moore has a “hard-core following” that could put him in a runoff. This Republican emphasized that Trump’s opposition would likely mean any opponent could defeat him one-on-one, but Moore making a runoff is a potentially disastrous scenario for Republicans given the unpredictability of those matchups.
“I think it's a disaster if it's misplayed,” this Republican said.
National Republicans are not yet picking a candidate to back, and the state GOP is staying out of the primary. Terry Lathan, the state party chair, said in a statement that they will remain neutral: “It is up to the candidates to make their case to the Republican primary voters to secure their support.”
The primary, set for next March, is still far away. The filing deadline is in December, leaving plenty of time for other candidates to enter the race. Even as the other candidates build their campaigns, Republicans in Washington plan to bash Moore, if he runs, as unelectable not just for the allegations of sexual misconduct, but for the other controversies in his past, including being twice removed from the state Supreme Court.
"Last time around was a sprint. This is a marathon,” said Jesse Hunt, a spokesperson for the NRSC. “Roy Moore has proven he's incapable of winning a general election, and no stone will be left unturned as it pertains to his background."
Alex Isenstadt contributed to this report.