There was a time when I might have written the words, "Alabama Republicans would rather see a child molester elected to the Senate than a Democrat," and it would have been seen as an exaggeration. Frankly, I would have meant it, long before now. Alabama is the home of George Wallace, Jeff Sessions and . . . Judge Roy Moore, who was thrown off the State Supreme Court for defying the U.S. Constitution twice! Now he's the Republican nominee in Tuesday's special election for the U.S. Senate. These people are serious, deep-in-their-bones "states' rights" conservatives with all that implies.
Nonetheless, one might have thought there would at least be a collective recoil among conservative evangelicals when a candidate was credibly alleged to have molested and "dated" underage girls when he was in his 30s. But after stumbling a bit at first, Moore adopted the Trump method of blanket denial, and most of his base of conservative Christians have decided to take his word for it over the women who have accused him.
After all, Moore is one of them, a hard right, true blue, evangelical zealot who put a two-ton statue of the Ten Commandments in front of the courthouse and refused to acknowledge the Supreme Court's recognition of marriage equality. And those were just his highest-profile culture war battles. From anti-Muslim rhetoric to antediluvian attitudes on race to patriarchal views on women's rights, he's one of the nation's leading conservative Christian soldiers.
Most Republicans in Alabama will vote for Roy Moore on Tuesday no matter what. The only question is whether enough of them defect or stay home -- and whether enough Democrats show up to vote to defeat him. If that happens, it will be a very big deal. Alabama hasn't elected a Democrat to the Senate since 1992. That was the state's current senior senator, Richard Shelby, who promptly changed parties and hasn't looked back. Interestingly, Shelby has refused to support Moore and says he didn't vote for him, but couldn't bring himself to vote for Democrat Doug Jones either.
It's hard to imagine a less likely champion for a fanatical right-wing Christian than Steve Bannon, the former presidential strategist who is now (once again) chair of Breitbart News. But he's been Moore's most vociferous backer, going back to the Republican primary when President Trump supported Luther Strange, the establishment choice who was appointed to fill the seat after Jeff Sessions became attorney general. Had Strange won that runoff, he would likely be so far ahead of Jones today that the rest of the country wouldn't even be aware of this election. And Bannon's star would be much lower in the sky.
Bannon is a millionaire city slicker whose phony drawl, unshaven mug and what appears to be some kind of hunting jacket are a pose he affects on the campaign trail. It's as if he's had one of his Hollywood stylist pals put together a "populist" costume. It seems to be pretty popular down in Alabama, where he strolls around the stage explaining to folks how the "elites" are tryna tell 'em what ta do. He calls out the GOP "establishment" by their first names, saying things like, "We’re going to hold you accountable, Mitch, real conservatives hold you in total contempt," to ecstatic applause from the crowd.
Just a few days ago, Bannon viciously attacked Mitt Romney, saying, "You hid behind your religion. You went to France to be a missionary while men were dying in Vietnam. Do not talk about honor and integrity." Apparently he has forgotten that draft-dodging Donald Trump once said that avoiding venereal disease was his own personal Vietnam.
Of course Bannon relentlessly attacks the media, which he also calls the "opposition." When the Washington Post reported the first accusations of women claiming to have been molested by Moore, Bannon knew who to blame:
The Bezos-Amazon-Washington Post that dropped that dime on Donald Trump is the same Bezos-Amazon-Washington Post that dropped the dime this afternoon on Judge Roy Moore. Now, is that a coincidence? That’s what I mean when I say opposition party, right? It’s purely part of the apparatus of the Democratic Party. They don’t make any bones about it. By the way, I don’t mind it. I’ll call them out every day.
Bannon's entire spiel during this campaign boils down to what he said in Midland City, Alabama, on Monday night: "They tried to destroy Donald Trump and they tried to destroy Roy Moore. They're coming for you!" For some reason this thrills the crowds and they cheer deliriously when he says it.
The emerging mythology here is that Bannon single-handedly rescued Moore from ignominy after the molestation charges surfaced. The story goes that Trump was overseas and was inclined to follow the mainstream Republican crowd that was saying variations on "If the charges are true, Moore should step down." Trump's poodle Sean Hannity followed his lead, demanding that Moore "explain himself" within 24 hours or he would withdraw his endorsement. Bannon is credited with coming up with the idea of saying that "the people of Alabama should decide," which Hannity adopted quickly, followed by much of the GOP and finally the president himself. After which Moore's poll numbers revived, putting him in position for a likely victory.
Bannon reportedly persuaded Trump that he needed to ensure Republicans didn't lose a Senate vote, but I think this is Bannon being self-serving. Remember, Trump was actually in the catbird seat at the time. He'd endorsed Strange and after he lost had pivoted to Moore without much enthusiasm. If Moore were to lose, Trump could say he'd backed the "real" winner originally so it wasn't his fault. If Moore won, Trump could take credit, since he takes credit for everything, including the sun coming up in the morning.
If the president has moved closer to Moore in recent weeks, it's out of pure self-interested calculation. Trump likely concluded he'd be better off standing up for Moore in the face of all those accusers than letting him twist in the wind while everyone started thinking about that "Access Hollywood" tape of 2016 and all the accusations that followed. Trump's instinct is to fight, and my guess is that he felt by fighting for Moore he was fighting for himself.
This is being seen as Bannon's big moment. Even Roy Moore is calling him the "master strategist." If Moore wins this race, the political establishment is preparing to label Bannon as the latest GOP genius along the lines of Lee Atwater and Karl Rove. And that will be ridiculous.
If Roy Moore is elected to the Senate, it won't be because of Steve Bannon. It will be because it's Alabama, a state so conservative that more people would rather vote for a Republican child molester than a Democratic candidate of any description. It's been that way for more than 30 years.
If Doug Jones wins, on the other hand, it will suggest that something very hopeful may be unfolding: a congressional takeover in 2018. For that we can thank ordinary women who came forward and told their stories. Let's hope they are rewarded for their bravery.