Roy Moore weighs 2020 Senate bid despite party opposition

By Joseph Ax

(Reuters) – Alabama Republican Roy Moore, whose 2017 U.S. Senate bid was derailed by allegations of decades-old sexual misconduct involving teenage girls, is expected to announce on Thursday whether he will run again for the seat next year.

The prospect of a rematch between Moore – a conservative former judge who cultivated controversy even before the salacious allegations against him – and U.S. Senator Doug Jones – widely considered the most vulnerable Democratic incumbent in 2020 – has already gotten pushback from Republican Party leaders, including President Donald Trump.

“If Alabama does not elect a Republican to the Senate in 2020, many of the incredible gains that we have made during my Presidency may be lost,” Trump wrote on Twitter last month. “Roy Moore cannot win, and the consequences will be devastating!”

In media interviews, Moore has expressed interest in running again, and political strategists in the state said they expect him to jump into the race.

Democrats need a net gain of three seats in 2020 to win a majority in the 100-seat Senate. Trump won Alabama in 2016 by nearly 30 percentage points.

Jones became the first Democratic senator from Alabama in decades when he narrowly won a special election after Moore, 72, was accused of pursuing sexual relationships with teenagers when he was in his 30s, including one girl as young as 14. He has denied all the allegations.

Jones’ victory came in a special election to fill the seat held by Jeff Sessions before he was named U.S. attorney general by Trump. The November 2020 election is for a full six-year term.

Moore still enjoys a base of support in the deeply Republican state, particularly among evangelical voters.

Before running for the Senate, he was twice removed as the state’s chief judge – once for ignoring a federal court order to remove a Ten Commandments monument from the judicial building and once for refusing to allow same-sex marriages despite the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling legalizing them.

In 2017, before the sexual misconduct allegations came to light, Moore prevailed in a nominating election over Republican incumbent Luther Strange, who had the support of the party establishment. A super PAC affiliated with Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate majority leader, spent millions of dollars boosting Strange’s candidacy.

Some Republicans abandoned Moore after the accusations became public, and the party’s Senate campaign arm cut ties with his campaign. But Trump endorsed Moore and sought to cast doubt on the veracity of the allegations against him.

Alabama U.S. Senator Richard Shelby, a Republican, told reporters on Thursday ahead of the news conference that he would not support a Moore candidacy.

“I think it’s to the president’s advantage, to the Republican Senate’s advantage, that Roy Moore not win,” he said. “I think we’ll all be looking for an alternative.”

Several other Republicans, including former Auburn University head football coach Tommy Tuberville and U.S. Representative Bradley Byrne, have announced they will challenge Jones.

A Moore campaign could also prove to be a “headache” for Republicans running for office elsewhere, according to Zac McCrary, an Alabama-based Democratic pollster.

“Mitch McConnell and Republicans across the country don’t want to spend the next year and a half answering questions about Roy Moore,” McCrary said.

(Reporting by Joseph Ax in New York; Editing by Peter Cooney and Jonathan Oatis)