FAIRHOPE, Ala. — It already felt a little like a victory party in Alabama Tuesday, where Senate candidate Roy Moore is suddenly feeling love from the Republican Party despite weeks of disclosures that he sexually pursued and assaulted underaged girls.
There was a barn packed, standing room only, with supporters. American flags and twinkling white lights decorated the interior, while rain occasionally pounded on a tin roof. And Stephen K. Bannon, the former White House strategist turned king-maker, was here to help push Moore over the finish line with his trademark defiance.
“They want to destroy Judge Moore. And you know why? They want to take your voice away,” Bannon declared.
“There is no better way to spend a rainy evening in Alabama than with the deplorables,” he said, playing to the antiestablishment crowd gathered to hear him Tuesday night.
The neck-and-neck special election contest in Alabama has become, for Bannon, the most extreme example of his “honey badger don’t give a [expletive]”-style of politics, a philosophy inspired by a viral video that shows a badger chasing a jackal and fighting a cobra in search of food. Along the way a narrator explains how the honey badger doesn’t care who he steps on or how disgusting his methods appear to others.
It is also the first of what Bannon and his ultraright, nationalist allies hope is a movement to elect more outsider candidates to the House and Senate.
Tuesday evening, Bannon also tore into former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, a Republican who is a sharp Moore critic and a possible candidate for Senate in Utah if incumbent Senator Orrin Hatch opts to retire.
“You hid behind your religion,” Bannon said of Romney, referring to his Mormon missionary work in the 1960s in France, which allowed him to win a draft deferment. “Judge Moore has more honor and integrity in his pinky finger than your entire family does.”
Bannon’s support in the contest against Democrat Doug Jones has been crucial for Moore, the former renegade state judge and ultraright favorite who has been accused of sexually assaulting teenaged girls when he was a single man in his 30s. The contest, a special election set for Tuesday, is to replace Jeff Sessions who was tapped to be Trump’s attorney general.
Moore drew parallels between his race here and Trump’s 2016 contest. “He fought both the Democrats and the Republicans and became president of the United States,” Moore said.
“When he was elected I felt like a big weight had been taken off my shoulders. It felt like we had another chance. And do have another chance,” Moore said.
This week marked the beginning of an improbable turnaround, after the renegade Moore, and by proxy, Bannon, appeared headed for a repudiation just a month ago.
“Alabama isn’t sending no Democrat to the Congress,” said Les McMinn, 56, who held up a handwritten sign at Tuesday’s rally that read, “Thank you Lord Jesus for Roy Moore.”
Moore appeared to be in serious trouble after The Washington Post reported early last month that he had sexually molested a 14-year-old girl in the late 1970s and sexually pursued other teenagers. Another woman came forward at a press conference and said Moore sexually assaulted her in a car when she, too, was in high school. Many Republicans distanced themselves from Moore and called on him to drop out of the race.
But in a sign of how much the party has changed since Donald Trump’s 2016 election, the president turned the tide back in Moore’s favor two weeks ago, when he said Alabama voters should reject Jones, whom he described as too liberal. This week, Trump explicitly endorsed Moore, the Republican National Committee restored the spigot of campaign cash, and Mitch McConnell moderated his earlier rejection of Moore after the Post’s revelations.
Now Moore has reestablished a lead in the polls. If he wins, it will be seen as a bigger triumph for Bannon and his far-right movement that has inspired cadres of white nationalists than for Republicans in the Senate. One reason Bannon backs Moore is the sheer discomfort he will bring to Washington.
“He’s going to make McConnell’s life a living hell,” said Andrew Surabian, a former Trump White House aide and Bannon confidant.
Particularly in this moment of reckoning about sexual misconduct by powerful men, adding Moore to the Senate — with the president’s blessing — will further radicalize the Republican Party and redefine the boundaries of acceptable behavior for membership in the country’s most esteemed body, according to critics from both parties.
Moore moves the party so far away from the establishment that the previous rebels are suddenly seen as reasonable, Surabian said.
“Roy Moore will normalize Ted Cruz,” he said, referring to the Texas senator whose antics contributed to a temporary government shutdown in 2013.
Trump, after initially waffling, gave Moore a full-throated endorsement on Monday, calling him from Air Force One to say: “Go get ‘em Roy.”
The president was already planning a trip Friday to Pensacola, Fla., a city that’s so close to the Alabama border it’s in a region of the state known as Flora-bama.
Last month, after the revelations of Moore’s alleged sexual misconduct, McConnell said that Moore should step aside. But on Sunday, on ABC’s “This week,” he declared, “Let the people of Alabama make the call.”
But the party is still not united behind Moore, whom many see as an incoming albatross for Republican senators. And Bannon gets the blame. Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona and Romney are among party leaders who have condemned Moore, and Bannon.
“What (Bannon’s) doing is trying to elect people to the US Senate who have one issue, that is to destabilize the leadership of Mitch McConnell,” said Scott Jennings, a Republican strategist and McConnell ally. “I happen to think it is a misguided goal.”
He noted that McConnell has delivered Trump some legislative victories, including Senate passage last week of a tax cut bill that would also repeal the federal mandate that Americans purchase health insurance, a key tenet of the Affordable Care Act. The GOP-controlled Senate has also confirmed a Supreme Court justice and a raft of judges to the federal bench.
Bannon is planning to launch his own political nonprofit called Citizens of the American Republic, according to online records filed in Virginia. The organization hasn’t officially started, but The Wall Street Journal found a website for the group where the mission was described as “fighting for American workers and American sovereignty.”
Moore is still in a close fight with Jones. Polls are showing the Alabama race within the margin of error, which is in some ways stunning given that Trump won Alabama by nearly 28 percentage points.
Jones is a former federal prosecutor who helped jail the man responsible for bombing the Atlanta Olympics. While in his federal post, he landed convictions for two Ku Klux Klansmen who bombed a church in Birmingham in 1963, killing four little girls.
Bannon, 64, took over Trump’s struggling campaign in August 2016 when polls suggested little room for a Republican victory. He went on to become Trump’s chief strategist in the White House.
But it’s been since leaving the West Wing in August that Bannon has emerged as a national figure in his own right. On Tuesday, Bannon announced he would return to hosting a morning radio show SiriusXM radio. That’s in addition to his perch atop Breitbart News Network.
“I think this is historical precedent,” said longtime Democratic strategist James Carville, adding that he’s never seen a person so willing to push what appears to be “chaos for the sake of chaos.”