By KIM CHANDLER and ALAN FRAM Associated Press
MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Republican Roy Moore, a former judge who defiantly opposed gay marriage and defended the public display of the Ten Commandments, has jumped into the race for a U.S. Senate seat he lost under a cloud of accusations to a Democrat two years ago.
In announcing his candidacy, Moore on Thursday defied national GOP leaders eager to keep him out of the contest after his narrow defeat in 2017 to Sen. Doug Jones amid accusations Moore engaged in sexual misconduct with teenage girls decades ago. Moore has vehemently denied those accusations.
The March 2020 GOP primary presents a wall of opposition to Moore that includes resistance from national party figures who fear he could damage their chances of reclaiming the once reliably red state.
Moore had previously dismissed his 2017 loss as the result of “fraudulent” tactics and said Thursday that Alabama’s Republican voters — not people outside the state — will decide the 2020 primary.
“People in Alabama are not only angry, they are going to act on that anger. They want Washington, and other people outside their state, out of this election,” Moore said at his announcement.
“Why does the mere mention of my name cause people to get up in arms in Washington D.C?” added Moore. “Is it because I believe in God, and marriage and morality in our county? … Are these things embarrassing to them?”
Those critical of Moore’s decision included Alabama’s senior senator.
“Alabama can do better than Roy Moore,” Republican Sen. Richard Shelby told reporters shortly before Moore’s announcement. Of the possibility of Moore securing the GOP nomination, he added: “I don’t think it’s good for the party nationally. … I don’t think it would help the president, I don’t think it would help anybody running.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was similarly blunt.
“He can do what he wants to, but we’re certainly going to oppose him in every way,” the Kentucky Republican said of Moore before his announcement.
President Donald Trump tweeted last month that Moore “cannot win” and said Republicans need to retake the seat in the generally conservative state.
“Republicans cannot allow themselves to again lose the Senate seat in the Great State of Alabama,” Trump tweeted.
Asked whether Trump would support or oppose Moore, Erin Perrine — a spokeswoman for the president’s reelection campaign — said only that “I refer you to the president’s previous tweets on the matter.”
During the 2017 race, several women accused Moore of pursuing romantic or sexual relationships with them when they were teenagers and he was an assistant district attorney in his 30s. Two accused him of assault or molestation.
Moore denied the accusations and has said he considered his 2017 defeat, when he lost to Jones by 22,000 votes out of 1.3 million cast, “a fraud.”
He currently faces a defamation lawsuit from Leigh Corfman, who said that Moore touched her sexually when she was 14 after meeting her at the courthouse. Moore has also countersued Corfman and other accusers.
Moore’s entry upends an already crowded GOP primary field competing to challenge Jones.
U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne, former Auburn University football coach Tommy Tuberville, legislator Arnold Mooney and businessman Stanley Adair have already announced bids and others are expected to enter the race.
Moore retains a strong following among some evangelical voters. He was twice elected the state’s chief justice but was twice stripped of those duties after a judicial ethics panel said he defied, or urged defiance of, federal court orders regarding same-sex marriage and the public display of the Ten Commandments.
His loyal following propelled him to victory in the 2017 primary and could give him another boost in 2020.
“I’m a hundred percent behind Judge Moore,” said Tim Sprayberry of Cleburne County, a supporter at Thursday’s announcement. “Judge Moore is one of the few candidates that I have ever seen that will tell you he is going to do something, and he does it regardless of what the consequences to him personally or his political career.”
Republican pollster Brent Buchanan said the crowded GOP primary will likely head to a runoff and said Moore is in the “catbird seat to have a spot in a runoff.”
But Steven Law, president of a GOP political committee linked to McConnell, said Moore faces tougher challenges this time around. That include competition vying for the same conservative religious voters who comprise the heart of Moore’s support and a less divided GOP, which in 2017 saw former Trump adviser Stephen Bannon helping insurgents like Moore.
“It’s a harder road for him this time,” said Law, who heads the Senate Leadership Fund.
Fram reported from Washington.