There are two figures in the Republican Party who best represent the state of the GOP in the Trump era. The first, of course, is Donald Trump. The second is Roy Moore. By the time Moore defeated Jeff Sessions’s replacement, Luther Strange, in the Republican primary for Alabama’s special election in 2017, he had already been a minor celebrity on the right-wing fringe for nearly 20 years. He had been removed from the Alabama Supreme Court twice for refusing to comply with federal rulings. He regularly made statements disparaging Islam and homosexuality. He had been a proponent of the theory that Barack Obama had not been born in the United States and had led an organization that celebrated pro-Confederate holidays. True to form, Moore would go on to make comments suggesting an ambivalence about American slavery during his campaign—America was last great, he had said in response to a question at a rally that September, “when families were united—even though we had slavery, they cared for one another.”
In the months leading up to the election, the Republican National Committee seemed entirely willing to swallow that record and more to keep Sessions’s seat in the party’s hands. But that November, The Washington Post went public with startling allegations. Moore, a fervent public tribune of conservative family values, was credibly accused of sexually abusing a 14-year-old girl and pursuing several other teenagers. This, obviously, was a bridge too far for the party. Quickly, the RNC pulled its money and field support from the campaign. “The allegations were obviously very concerning, and concerning to the degree that we pulled our resources,” committee chairwoman Ronna Romney McDaniel explained to conservative talk show host John Catsimatidis. “The Alabama voters are going to have to be the judge and jury on this.” Her uncle, former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, was among the voices urging the party to abandon Moore. “Roy Moore in the U.S. Senate would be a stain on the GOP and on the nation,” he tweeted. “No vote, no majority is worth losing our honor, our integrity.” At a press conference earlier in the month, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell called on Moore to step aside. “He’s obviously not fit to be in the United States Senate,” McConnell told reporters, “and we’ve looked at all the options to try to prevent that from happening.” By early December, Moore had few open supporters within the party infrastructure beyond the Alabama Republican Party, which had secured Moore’s place on the election ballot.
But it had also become clear by then that Moore, who had dismissed all calls to drop out, retained plenty of supporters within Alabama’s Republican electorate—voters who defiantly disbelieved The Washington Post’s reporting and were loyal enough that polls continued to show Moore in a dead heat or even ahead of Democratic challenger Doug Jones. In an interview just over a week before the election, McConnell declined to condemn Moore again. “I’m going to let the people of Alabama make the call,” he told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos. President Trump, less reticent, officially endorsed Moore by tweet the next day. “Democrats refusal to give even one vote for massive Tax Cuts,” he wrote, “is why we need Republican Roy Moore to win in Alabama.” In a statement afterward, the Moore campaign boasted that Trump had personally called to offer “enthusiastic support for Judge Moore’s candidacy.”
The inevitable followed. On December 4, 2017, the Republican National Committee endorsed a credibly accused child molester for U.S. Senate. Having decided his victory would be preferable to allowing a Democrat a partial and ultimately inconsequential term, the RNC resumed its financial support for the Moore campaign. In a column for USA Today, the conservative writer Jonah Goldberg stated the obvious. “The RNC pulled its support when they thought Moore could be forced from the race,” he wrote. “They renewed it when it was clear he lacked the decency to drop out. In other words, their real problem was with a potential loser, not a possible child molester.” In defense of its decision, the RNC issued a brief statement to the press: “The RNC is the political arm of the president and we support the President.”