WASHINGTON — A growing number of Senate Republicans, including majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, on Thursday called on Alabama Senate candidate Roy S. Moore to step aside from the Dec. 12 special election if allegations prove true that he made sexual overtures to four women when they were teenagers.
“If these allegations are true, he must step aside,” McConnell said in a statement after The Washington Post published a story online in which the women said in on-the-record interviews that Moore had pursued them in the 1970s and 1980s, when he was an attorney in his early 30s.
Moore was defiant, denying the charges and attacking the news media.
“These allegations are completely false and are a desperate political attack by the National Democrat Party and The Washington Post on this campaign,” he said in a statement.
Brett Doster, an adviser to Moore, said the candidate would absolutely not drop out of the race, calling the charges a fabricated November surprise.
In Alabama, the fallout was uncertain for a candidate who is considered a hero in some circles for his conservative cultural stances.
“There’s nothing to see here,” said Alabama state auditor Jim Ziegler, a longtime supporter of Moore. “Single man, early 30s, never been married, dating teenage girls. Never been married, and he liked younger girls. According to The Washington Post account, he never had sexual intercourse with any of them.”
John Skipper, 66, a former chair of the Mobile County Republican Party, declared that the allegations were “total contrived media garbage.” Skipper said that he would still support the candidate and that he figured most of the Alabama Republicans he knew would probably do the same.
“Most of them will not be shocked,” he said, “and will rather be expecting these shenanigans being pulled by the Democrats as standard operating procedure.”
But Moore’s candidacy appears to be in grave danger. Senate Republicans moved en masse to distance themselves from their nominee almost as soon as the news story was posted.
A statement from the office of Vice President Mike Pence said: “The vice president found the allegations in the story disturbing and believes, if true, this would disqualify anyone from serving in office.”
That statement was repeated by numerous Republican senators.
“If these allegations are true, his candidacy is not sustainable,” said Senator John Cornyn of Texas, the second-ranking Republican. Cornyn said he wanted to know more before withdrawing his endorsement of Moore.
Republicans, already reeling from the election losses they suffered on Tuesday, have only a two-seat majority in the Senate and are facing a handful of difficult elections next year.
Moore’s candidacy had already worried party leaders, who had embraced the controversial former state Supreme Court justice despite his long record of incendiary comments about gays, Muslims, and African-Americans, to protect the Senate seat once held by Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
But Alabama election law says a candidate who wishes to withdraw from a race must do so 76 days before Election Day. The Alabama vote is in little more than a month.
“First of all, it’s too late to substitute a candidate,” said John Merrill, the Alabama secretary of state, a Republican.
Republican lawyers and strategists in Washington were engaged in a furious search on Thursday for creative ways around that restriction, seeking a loophole that would allow the state Republican Party’s leadership to anoint a new candidate. The prospect of a write-in candidacy, for a third candidate, was also under consideration, according to party aides.
Senator Lisa Murkowski, an Alaska Republican who ran her own successful write-in campaign in 2010, echoed Cornyn’s statement.
“If in fact what I just read is true, he needs to get out of this race immediately,” she said.
She called on Senator Luther Strange, who was appointed to fill Sessions’ seat but lost to Moore in a bitterly contested Republican runoff in September, to run as a write-in.
One of the women, Leigh Corfman, told The Washington Post that she was 14 when Moore, 32 at the time, drove her to his home in Gadsden. He took off her shirt and touched her bra and underwear, while also guiding her hand over his pants, Corfman told the Post.
“I wanted it over with — I wanted out,” she told the newspaper. “Please just get this over with. Whatever this is, just get it over.”
Republican leaders appeared to be in a politically untenable situation, saddled with an embattled nominee unwilling to step aside in one of the country’s most conservative states. The charges immediately reignited hostilities between McConnell’s political allies, who poured millions into the campaign to stop Moore, and President Trump’s former chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon, who rallied support for the former justice.
“This is what happens when you let reckless, incompetent idiots like Steve Bannon go out and recruit candidates who have absolutely no business running for the US Senate,” said Josh Holmes, a former McConnell aide.
Private polling taken by both parties has shown that while Moore retains a passionate following among conservatives, he is a deeply divisive figure among more moderate Republicans.
In Alabama, Republicans were not immediately convinced that the story would end the candidacy of Moore, and few believed that he would drop out. He has been twice removed from the state supreme court but never lost an election.
But party officials worried that the charges would convince moderate Republicans to stay home on Election Day or cast their ballot for the Democratic candidate, Doug Jones.
Moore, who rose to national prominence over his refusal to remove a tablet of the Ten Commandments from the Alabama Supreme Court, enjoys a committed following from his fellow Evangelical Christians.
Senator Richard Shelby, the dean of the state’s congressional delegation, told reporters in Washington that if the charges are accurate, Moore doesn’t belong in the Senate.
Moore’s base of support in Alabama might not be quick to crumble. Randy Brinson, president of the Christian Coalition of Alabama, said he expected voters to give Moore the benefit of the doubt.
Brinson said he considered sexual misconduct a grave offense, but he questioned why the allegations against Moore would be coming out now, four weeks before an election.
“Until I see something different, I would support Roy Moore because of what he says he’s going to do and who he is as a person,” Brinson said.
Ziegler acknowledged as “the only part that is concerning,” the account given by Corfman of Moore’s alleged encounter with her when she was 14. As Ziegler described it: “He went a little too far and he stopped.”
Had the girl been 16 at the time and not 14, he added, “it would have been perfectly acceptable.”
Even before the allegations about his personal conduct came to light, Moore’s judicial record on matters of sexual abuse was a point of contention in the race. Democrats have alleged a deeper pattern of leniency in Moore’s decisions involving sexual predation, pointing to several cases in which the former judge expressed skepticism of women making allegations of sexual abuse.