Five years ago, when a Republican Senate nominee said things about rape and pregnancy that were beyond the pale, party leaders from the presidential nominee on down threw him under the bus. Now they’re handing an even more marginal figure the keys.
Then-Rep. Todd Akin’s (R-MO) Senate campaign imploded when he declared that women couldn’t get pregnant from “legitimate rape,” and GOP leaders including then-Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and presidential nominee Mitt Romney demanded that he drop out of the race and apologize for his remarks. But former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore’s (R) Tuesday primary win elicited a very different result from many of the same people in spite of his long history of homophobic, Islamophobic and racially charged remarks: A full-out embrace.
“I called him this morning and told him I’m certainly supporting him and want to help him,” Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-TX) told reporters Wednesday, the latest member of GOP leadership to fall in line and welcome Moore into the fold.
When asked by TPM how this was different than Akin’s campaign five years ago, Cornyn conceded Moore’s win was “similar in many ways.”
But Cornyn’s reaction hasn’t been the same — and he’s not the only one. The Texan chaired the National Republican Senatorial Committee when Akin made his comments, and responded by demanding the Missouri Republican drop out and pulling $5 million in funds that had been earmarked for his race (though the NRSC ended up spending a bit in the race’s closing days to help him out).
It’s not like Cornyn — or any of the rest of the GOP establishment — are fans of Moore. But things have changed dramatically in how scandal politics play, and how much GOP leaders have become willing to stomach candidates who would have been spit up in earlier years.
Moore is best known for twice being forced from the Alabama Supreme Court because he defied the rule of law with his religious conservative stances. The first time, he was kicked off for rejecting a higher court’s order to remove a Ten Commandments statue he’d erected in front of his courthouse. More recently, he’d ordered state officials to ignore the Supreme Court’s ruling legalizing gay marriage.
Cornyn warned reporters just days ago that Moore was too fringe — “Getting thrown off the Supreme Court of your state twice I don’t think is a credential that commends you for membership in the United States Senate,” he’d said.
But now that Moore is the nominee, Cornyn and others are pulling a swift about-face.
McConnell moved quickly to bury the hatchet after his allies spent close to $10 million to boost appointed Sen. Luther Strange (R-AL), who Moore crushed on Tuesday.
“I would like to congratulate Roy Moore on his victory in Alabama tonight,” McConnell said in a Tuesday statement. “He ran a spirited campaign centered around a dissatisfaction with the progress made in Washington. I share that frustration and believe that enacting the agenda the American people voted for last November requires us all to work together.”
President Trump, no stranger himself to controversial remarks, tweeted out a strong endorsement and proceeded to delete earlier tweets backing Strange.
Those bearhugs come in spite of Moore’s decades-long bigotry and radicalism.
He has suggested the 9/11 attacks happened because America turned its back on God, called Islam a “false religion,” claimed parts of the Midwest were already living under Islamic Sharia law, warned that “immorality, abortion, sodomy, sexual perversion sweep our land,” and continued to claim that President Obama wasn’t born in the U.S. — and that’s just in the course of this current campaign.
Just years ago, that would have been more than enough for the party to abandon him. But Trump’s election proved things have changed, Moore’s primary win cements that reality, and Republicans are reluctantly changing with them.
Brian Walsh was a top NRSC staffer when the group cut Akin loose, and said Trump’s victory had torched the old rulebook.
“The world changed a bit, for better or worse, when Trump won the White House despite what he’s said in the past. … When you consider what the person in the White House said on Access Hollywood, where else do you go from there?” he said. “If Republicans decided to say they wouldn’t support the candidate voters chose in Alabama, the grassroots backlash would be swift and severe.”
Walsh pointed to how quickly the scandal over now-Rep. Greg Gianforte (R-MT) body-slamming reporter Ben Jacobs blew over, citing it as evidence that scandals that would have rocked the political world are barely a blip in the Trump era.
On the other hand, some religious conservatives say the GOP treated Akin unfairly after he apologized for his remarks — and should embrace the man Alabama Republicans picked as their nominee, especially since they’re likely going to have to work with him in a few months’ time. Moore begins the race as the heavy favorite in the deep red state, though Democrats hope they can use his controversies against him.
Ed Martin, a top social conservative who heads the Eagle Forum and backed Moore in the primary, was the GOP nominee for Missouri’s attorney general in 2012. He said the party turning its back on Akin ended up costing him and other Republicans in the state.
“He’s likely the next senator, so it’s partly a desire to work with the guy who’s going to be in politics,” he said of Moore. “When Akin made his mistake, and it was a terrible mistake, the party bailed on him in a way that wasn’t wise. Maybe they’ve learned.”
Tim Miller was at the Republican National Committee when then-Chairman Reince Priebus (who later became Trump’s chief of staff) decided to cut Akin loose. He said there never was any internal discussion of whether to stand by the Missourian, just how far to go in rejecting him, and that it was obviously the right thing to do, both politically and morally. Now, Republicans are too terrified of crossing their base.
“Obviously there was extreme concern about Akin both on the merits of what he said and the impact to the party, and those concerns were right, they bore out in the election,” he said, blaming Akin for hurting Romney and other Republicans. “The drastic difference between that and the response to Roy Moore is really telling. There hasn’t been anyone I’ve heard even suggest that Roy Moore wouldn’t be worthy of the support of the party, and there’s an element of this that’s due to PTSD from Trump. … It’s unfortunate because the reality is Moore is far more extreme than Akin.”