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Jules Witcover: Trump risks party damage in Alabama race

Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON — At precisely the time sexual harassment has become an issue of national concern, next week’s special election in Alabama for the U.S. Senate seat vacated by current Attorney General Jeff Sessions is a litmus test for the soul of the Republican Party.

Its elected leader, President Trump, after first waffling, has thrown in with GOP nominee Roy Moore, who was twice removed from office as the chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court and now stands publicly accused of molesting a 14-year-old girl when he was 32 years old. Trump’s prime purpose is keeping the Senate in Republican hands.

Trump has specifically justified his support of Moore on the ground that his opponent, former prosecutor Doug Jones, is a Democrat and a liberal. His election would jeopardize the narrow GOP majority in the Senate that gave the president his first major legislative victory in his tax reform bill.

“We don’t want to have a liberal Democrat in Alabama, believe me,” Trump declared. He thus hung out to dry a host of prominent Senate Republicans who had already expressed their unwillingness to have Moore as a colleague, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Rather than attempting to defend Moore against the sexual misconduct allegation, a variety of which Trump himself once bragged in a video whose authenticity he now questions, the president has turned the contest into a matter of pure partisan politics.

Immediately genuflecting to its master’s voice, the Republican National Committee that earlier had withdrawn financial support for Moore has announced it will back him after all.

McConnell in particular has been left with egg on his face. He insisted Tuesday he had “no change of heart” on Moore and didn’t think his like-minded Republican colleagues in the Senate would flip either. One of them, Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, said: “Doesn’t really matter what I think at this point, right?”

Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, one of the Senate Republicans who derailed the earlier Trump-backed effort to repeal Obamacare but then helped narrowly pass the president’ tax reform bill, declined to endorse Moore, saying: “The president’s going to do what the president’s going to do.”

But Trump’s decision to put his bet on Moore is one that can jeopardize not only his own political support among female voters nationally but also that of the entire party. Former GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney has warned that Moore’s election would “be a stain on the GOP and on the nation.”

One Trump critic within the party, Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, facing possible defeat for re-election next year, has said he won’t run and has written a $100 check to Jones’ campaign fund. In what could be a harbinger of a challenge to Trump himself in 2020, Flake noted on the memo line of his check, “Country over party.”

Even if elected next Tuesday, Moore could face efforts in the Senate to bar his seating on ethics charges. The issue could cling through the run-up to next year’s midterm congressional elections, also jeopardizing the Republican majorities in the House and Senate.

The Democrats have been quick to seize the rise in public concern over sexual harassment and sexual assault in politics as well as among celebrities in entertainment and journalism. The concern includes such allegations against the president himself before his entry into electoral politics.

A spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Committee has called on House Speaker Paul Ryan to “unequivocally disavow” the Republican National Committee and refuse its support next year. “Any organization that spends money to elect child molesters has so place in the political process,” he said.

But the Democrats have their own sexual misbehavior troubles to deal with. Former House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers Jr., a founder of the Congressional Black Caucus, has resigned from Congress after 52 years in office. Now, Democratic Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota has also resigned, insisting “some of the allegations against me are simply not true” while “others I remember quite differently,” and he has apologized.

But the charges against Moore are particularly egregious for the involvement of teenage girls. But so is Trump’s willingness to risk public censure, not only of himself but of his whole party on an issue that suddenly has emerged from a long period of darkness in American society.

Jules Witcover’s latest book is “The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power,” published by Smithsonian Books.

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