By ALAN FRAM and KIM CHANDLER Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — Conservative lightning rod Roy Moore of Alabama, narrow loser of a turbulent special election for Senate in 2017, is considering a fresh run next year. National Republican leaders are signaling they’ll again try preventing their party from nominating the twice-removed state jurist whose campaign was battered by allegations of long-ago sexual harassment of teenagers.
Moore’s defeat for the same seat two years ago made him the first Republican in reliably red Alabama to lose a Senate race in a quarter century. National party leaders say a Moore nomination would endanger what they view as a strong shot at defeating Sen. Doug Jones , the Democrat and former federal prosecutor who upset Moore two years ago.
Moore’s nomination could also have national repercussions, allowing Democrats to accuse the GOP of ignoring the #MeToo movement and coddling a man accused of sexual misconduct , allegations he’s denied. Moore says he expects to announce a decision in mid-June.
“I’m still praying about it and talking to people, my family, my wife and I’m strongly considering it,” Moore, 72, told The Associated Press on Wednesday.
In a separate AP interview last week, he said 2020 “could be a touchpoint in our nation, not only for the presidency but for the House and Congress.” Moore said he had many reasons for considering another campaign but declined to elaborate.
Republicans control the Senate 53-47 and view defeating Jones as a top priority. Jones, 65, is considered the most endangered Democratic incumbent facing re-election in 2020, a year when several GOP senators are vulnerable and control of the chamber will be at stake.
Alabama’s deep conservative leanings were demonstrated anew this week with a new law criminalizing nearly every abortion in the state, which Jones called an “extreme” attack on women. With abortion potentially a driving 2020 issue and President Donald Trump certain to carry Alabama easily in next year’s elections, Republicans have little interest in fumbling a chance to recapture Jones’ seat.
Establishment Republicans also have no taste for revisiting the chaos that was Moore’s 2017 Senate race. His campaign and his refusal to abandon it after the sexual harassment charges emerged a month before Election Day divided the party, with President Donald Trump giving Moore his eleventh-hour endorsement while other leaders remained opposed or distanced themselves from the contest.
Jones defeated Moore by 22,000 votes out of 1.3 million cast.
“The people of Alabama rejected Roy Moore not too long ago,” Sen. Todd Young, R-Ind., who leads the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the Senate GOP’s campaign arm, told the AP this week. “I with my Republican colleagues always want to be supportive of the most conservative candidate who can actually win a race, and I don’t see that anything has changed in the state of Alabama since the last election.”
Asked if he would try to head off Moore, Young said, “We’ll actively work to make sure that the most conservative, electable Republican is our nominee.”
Sending a similar signal was Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who tried unsuccessfully to derail Moore in 2017. Asked whether he’d oppose a renewed run by Moore, McConnell told a reporter, “I think you know the answer to that.”
Alabama GOP leaders, who resisted pressure from Washington Republicans to hinder Moore’s path to the 2017 nomination, are showing no signs of thwarting him this time.
“The voters will make these decisions,” state party Chairman Terry Lathan said in an email. She said she didn’t know Moore’s plans because “he rarely communicates with the Party.”
McConnell’s and other party leaders’ preferred 2017 nominee was GOP Sen. Luther Strange, appointed months earlier to fill a vacancy. They feared that moderate voters would abandon Moore if he was nominated because of his hard-right views against gay marriage and for a larger role of religion in government, plus his use of racially insensitive language.
The Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC aligned with McConnell, spent $6.9 million in the primary against Moore and for Strange, according to Federal Election Commission figures. The Republican senatorial committee spent another $400,000 to help Strange. Moore defeated Strange in a runoff.
McConnell began intervening in GOP primaries earlier this decade after some quirky contenders won nominations but lost winnable general elections.
After winning the nomination, Moore’s campaign was further roiled when The Washington Post reported claims by several women that he pursued inappropriate relationships with them when they were teenagers and he was in his 30s. McConnell and others unsuccessfully called for Moore to step aside.
Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., who chairs the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, parried a question about whether the sexual misconduct allegations would make Moore a weak candidate in 2020, saying, “You’ve already answered your own question.”
Moore said Washington Republicans’ complaints that he couldn’t win another election were unfounded since he was elected twice as the state’s chief justice. He was removed both times, for publicly displaying the Ten Commandments and telling lower court judges to refuse to marry gay couples.
“Should I qualify I’ll run for Senate in the state of Alabama, not Washington, D.C.,” said Moore, who’s been strongly supported by evangelical voters.
Moore said he’s not reached out to Trump or White House officials this time.
“It’s not because I’m adverse to President Trump at all,” he said. “I support his policies and what he stands for. I’m not running for anybody else, I’m running for the state of Alabama.”
A White House spokesperson declined to answer questions. Trump presidential campaign aides didn’t immediately respond to emails seeking comment.
Rep. Bradley Byrne, former Auburn University football coach Tommy Tuberville are among those who’ve already announced bids for the GOP nomination.
Strange filled the vacancy left by Sen. Republican Jeff Sessions, who became Trump’s first attorney general.