(Bloomberg) -- Republican Senator Richard Shelby, Alabama’s senior member of Congress, strongly condemned his party’s candidate, Roy Moore, on Sunday as the contentious campaign for the state’s open senate seat nears its end.
“The state of Alabama deserves better,” Shelby said on CNN’s “State of the Union,” citing the accusations of impropriety against Moore by multiple women. Shelby said he has already voted absentee and that he cast a write-in ballot for “a distinguished Republican” he declined to name.
Alabamans vote Tuesday in a special election for the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Jeff Sessions, now the U.S. attorney general. Shelby, 83, had said earlier in the campaign that he couldn’t support Moore. Yet doing so again on national television in such strong terms -- and less than 48 hours before voters go to the polls -- represented a dramatic and last-minute twist in a race that has whipsawed Alabama voters for months.
Moore, 70, won a primary election in August against Luther Strange, who’d been appointed to fill the seat on an interim basis. In recent weeks, Moore’s been accused of initiating a sexual encounter with a 14-year-old, sexually assaulting a 16-year-old, and romantically pursuing other teenage girls when he was in his 30s.
“I understand we would like to retain that seat in the U.S. Senate,” said Shelby, who has served in the upper chamber for 30 years. “But there’s a lot of stories out there. There’s a lot of smoke. Got to be some fire somewhere.”
In making his comments, Shelby directly clashed with President Donald Trump, who has urged voters to support Moore despite the drumbeat of accusations -- many of which date to a period when Moore was a local district attorney in the 1970s and 1980s.
Trump staged a rally in Pensacola, Florida, close to the Alabama border on Friday night, and he tweeted his support for Moore on Saturday. The president also recorded a pro-Moore robocall expected to go out to voters on Monday, Politico reported.
A fellow Southern Republican, Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina, chimed in Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” appearing to support Moore’s accusers and underscoring the chaos that the former judge’s candidacy has created for the national Republican Party.
Scott said “the allegations are significantly stronger than then denial” when it came to the accounts provided by Moore’s accusers. If Moore wins, Scott added, “there will immediately be an ethics investigation.”
Like Scott, Shelby appeared to be speaking to two distinct audiences. On one hand, they are targeting Alabama voters weighing Moore’s credibility and character against the possibility of voting for Democrat Doug Jones or a Republican write-in candidate in a state Trump won by almost 30 percentage points over Hillary Clinton in 2016.
On the other are national Republicans, many of whom are unhappy at the prospect that Moore could be the party’s newest senator at moment when several lawmakers have resigned over sexual-harassment allegations.
Senator Susan Collins, a moderate Republican from Maine, said on Sunday she was “disappointed” that the Republican National Committee had resumed support for Moore after earlier distancing itself.
Collins said even before the sexual-harassment allegations, she was concerned about Moore’s history of anti-Muslim and anti-gay rhetoric and of his having twice been removed from his post as chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court for failing to follow lawful judicial orders.
Senator Cory Gardner, the Coloradan who chairs the National Republican Senatorial Committee, has said that if Moore wins, the Senate should expel him.
Shelby declined to say if he would support such an effort but said he believes Moore would immediately face an ethics committee investigation.
“I think that the Senate has to look at who is fit to serve in the Senate,” Shelby said.
Dean Young, a political strategist for Moore, downplayed comments that his candidate would immediately face an ethics committee investigation if elected.
“I highly doubt there’s going to be a Senate investigation,” Young said on ABC’s “This Week” program on Sunday. “But if there is, Judge Moore’s going to be found telling the truth, just like he always has.”
Young said the race is “ground zero” for Trump because if Alabama residents vote for “this liberal Democrat” Jones, they’re voting against the president they helped put in office and his agenda.
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