ROBERT COSTA: Tonight, on this special edition of the Washington Week Extra, embattled Senate candidate Roy Moore vows to fight on, but how are Alabama voters responding? Plus, the fallout of sexual harassment allegations on Capitol Hill. I’m Robert Costa. All that, next.
ANNOUNCER: This is the Washington Week Extra. Once again, from Washington, moderator Robert Costa.
MR. COSTA: Welcome to the Washington Week Extra.
More than 500 miles from Capitol Hill, voters in Alabama are less than two weeks away from picking a new senator. It’s just one race, but with a narrow Republican majority it will have significant impact on President Trump’s agenda. And it has become part of a national discussion of sexual harassment and power in Congress. Republican candidate Roy Moore, who has been accused by several women of inappropriate sexual behavior, denies the allegations and spoke out this week.
ROY MOORE: (From video.) This is simply dirty politics, and it’s a sign of the immorality – (applause) – it’s a sign of the immorality of our time.
MR. COSTA: To help explain this wild race, I’m joined by Michael Scherer from The Washington Post newsroom. Michael, you’ve made three reporting trips to Alabama in the last two months. And when you’re on the ground there, what are voters saying in this closing chapter? What do they make of Judge Moore and his defiance in this closing stretch?
MICHAEL SCHERER: It’s really a divided electorate, and the most interesting segment of it is the one that’s really struggling with these allegations. A lot of people find them very credible. They’re Republican voters in a Republican state. They don’t want to send a Democrat to Washington. They are pro-life, Doug Jones is pro-choice. And yet, they feel torn because they have these political interests and then – and then they see the allegations, and they’re trying to weigh these two different things. And that’s really what will decide this election down the stretch, you know, people who maybe are not diehard Republicans, they’re not diehard white Evangelical voters who remain very much with Roy Moore, but are Republicans in the state who feel uneasy about electing Moore and may vote against their own party.
MR. COSTA: We saw in the Virginia elections in November that the suburban voters are the key voters. Is that the same situation down in Alabama? The people in the suburbs of Birmingham and Mobile, are they the people who will sway this race?
MR. SCHERER: And Huntsville as well. Yeah, I think they are, and I would add to that women voters. You know, women voters have taken these allegations far more seriously in polls than men, and they tend to be breaking off at a higher rate. So I think that’s the other group.
You know, the other thing you have to look at is the African-American turnout. A significant portion of Democratic voters in that state are black. If they don’t turn out for Doug Jones, that could decide this race as well.
And then the last target group to look at is whether there’s a group of Republicans who will never be able to vote for Jones because of his, you know, abortion views and other views, but who choose to stay home; people, you know, Roy Moore otherwise would have gotten to the polls who he just doesn’t get to the polls because they’re sitting out this race because of the allegations.
MR. COSTA: You mentioned Huntsville. And if you think about Alabama right now in 2017, you have a business community there that’s thriving. They’re trying to bring big business into the state. And it makes me wonder, how much of this race is about something more than Roy Moore versus Doug Jones? Is it about the identity of Alabama as a state?
MR. SCHERER: I think it is. You know, the biggest booming business in Alabama right now is federal contracting. NASA has big plants down there. The Defense Department does a lot of work down there. A lot of U.S. missiles are developed around the Huntsville area. You know, this – there is a growing kind of cosmopolitan, metropolitan, corporate workforce, highly educated, that would very much like to see Alabama escape its reputation of the past. And Roy Moore is nothing if not a return to that, you know, biblically orthodox version of, you know, states-rights, Alabama-pride past. And so I think that’s another thing that’s being discussed here. Doug Jones’ campaign has very much run on this idea that Alabama can turn the page on its own past, can go forward, you know, into the future with a – with a more gentle, more – less combative approach to politics, to working with the rest of the country. And that is one of the things that’s on the ballot.
MR. COSTA: What about this battlefront in the Republican civil war? You have Steve Bannon, the former White House chief strategist to President Trump. He’ll be down there next week for a rally with Judge Moore. And you have Mitch McConnell, the majority leader; he’s really wary of Judge Moore. And this seems to be the latest front of that unending, it seems, battle between those forces in the Republican Party.
MR. SCHERER: Yeah. And like many of these battles, it’s a particularly ugly one. You know, the other factor here is that President Trump now, we found out, is going to be going down to hold a rally next week in Florida, but on the Panhandle, on the border with Alabama, so he’ll get coverage in Alabama without actually going to Alabama. And the fact that he’s sort of sided in the last couple weeks with Moore, not by re-endorsing Moore but by saying we can’t have a Democrat like Doug Jones in the Senate, suggests that in that battle, where the party is very divided here, you know, the president doesn’t want to once again find himself on the wrong side of his own base, and is taking a more cautious approach.
I think if Moore wins this race and comes to Washington, it is going to be fascinating to watch how he tangles with McConnell. To this day, you know, Moore’s biggest enemy on the – on the stump are not Democrats, it’s not, you know, the national media or, you know, Northerners generally, it’s specifically Mitch McConnell. That’s the person he’s running against as a Republican in Alabama. And when he comes to the Senate, Mitch McConnell will be his number one enemy.
MR. COSTA: McConnell may be his number one enemy if he’s elected, if Judge Moore wins the seat. But explain to me this, Michael, because there’s an interesting dynamic here. You have McConnell. When I’m walking around the Capitol this week talking to Republican senators, they’re very skittish about Judge Moore. Then when you’re down in Alabama, Governor Kay Ivey, a Republican, she’s sticking with Judge Moore. Alabama Republicans, including establishment Republicans on the ground, are sticking with him. Why is that?
MR. SCHERER: The only statewide elected Republican to break with – and the only statewide elected official, because they’re all Republicans in Alabama – to break with Moore is Richard Shelby, the senior senator, and I think the reason is one of just job protection. You have a Republican Party there where 25, 30 percent of the state – so almost half the Republican base vote – is going to be with Roy Moore no matter what. And if you want to get elected in Alabama, you know, whatever you think of this race and whether Jones should win or Moore should win, you can’t alienate Judge Moore’s base. And so someone like Kay Ivey, who’s going to be up for reelection next year as governor, doesn’t want to position herself so that she has thrown the candidate of, you know, a significant portion of her electorate under the bus, and it’s put her in a very awkward position. Her official position right now is I have no reason to doubt the accusers against Roy Moore, and yet it’s very important for us to have a Republican in the Senate, and so I’m voting for Roy Moore. It’s a very tricky argument to be making, both to give credence to what are pretty horrific allegations against the judge and on the other hand saying I’m going to be voting for the judge.
MR. COSTA: Where are the Democrats on all this? I was talking to Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia this week, a moderate Democrat from a Southern state, and he said if I was Doug Jones I wouldn’t want the national Democratic Party getting involved. But there has to be some debate within Democratic ranks about that. Should they be putting more money, more of an effort into picking up a Senate seat in the Deep South?
MR. SCHERER: I think they are putting a lot of money in, and they’re trying to do it very quietly. Doug Jones has gotten a flood of money. He’s outraising Roy Moore by five to one, I think, over the last month. And there’s an outside group called Highway 31, which was set up so – in a way where it’s not going to disclose its donors until after the election. They’ve spent $2 million already, which is a lot of money – it’s more than twice what Roy Moore has spent on his own race – in ads praising Jones and attacking Moore. Those are big checks, probably, from probably national Democrats. We don’t know for sure. But they’ve structured it – the Democratic Party is very sensitive to the idea that they don’t want to be seen by Alabamians meddling in Alabama politics, so they’re trying to do it very quietly, and so they’re doing it through groups with very Alabama names like Highway 31.
MR. COSTA: Whatever happens on December 12th, you can be sure Democrats and Republicans are going to do a lot of thinking about how this race played out, did they do enough, did they do the right thing politically. Michael Scherer, I feel like you’re going to have a ZIP code soon in Alabama you’ve been down there so often. Thank you so much for joining us.
MR. SCHERER: Thank you, Bob.
MR. COSTA: Let’s bring the conversation back to Washington where many of Roy Moore’s potential Republican colleagues in Congress have called on him to withdraw. I’m joined around the table by Shawna Thomas of VICE News, Alexis Simendinger of The Hill, and Jonathan Swan of Axios.
Shawna, when you think about Doug Jones, the Democrat, if he has any chance of winning in deep red Alabama, he’s going to have to get every Democratic coalition out to vote on December 12th.
SHAWNA THOMAS: Yeah, and he’s going to have to get people out to vote who would normally never vote in a special election in December, that a lot of people probably didn’t necessarily register to vote for. But the big coalition that he has to try to get to show up, and that could, if they show up, swing the vote towards Doug Jones, is African-Americans. There are enough registered African-American voters who primarily do vote Democrat that he could take this race, especially since there are definitely some suburban white voters who are not totally sure about the Roy Moore situation.
The thing is, what – one of my correspondents, Alex Jaffe, has spent a lot of time in Alabama in the last couple of months. She’s down there right now. They’re seeing African-American groups. They are seeing some African-American leadership in Alabama sort of take the reins in trying to organize around Doug Jones. What they weren’t seeing until very recently was sort of a concerted effort from the Doug Jones campaign to actually organize this themselves.
And one of the people they’ve talked to who’s been trying to get at that vote has told them, you know, it’s great that Doug Jones shows up, you know, in Selma and marches on a bridge, but then doesn’t go to some of these other neighborhoods. And one told me one story about going to a barber shop, a primarily black barber shop, down the street from Doug Jones’ campaign headquarters. And people there were, like, we don’t know who Doug Jones is. He has not come in here.
MR. COSTA: When you think about the White House and the dance they have to do politically, Jonathan, the president says he’s not going down to Alabama, but he will do a rally next Friday night in Pensacola, Florida, about 50 miles away from Alabama. What does that tell you, as a reporter, about how the White House is handling this whole race?
JONATHAN SWAN: Well, it’s – they’ve had a very tough time, because the president has been completely removed from the congressional leadership of his party and, frankly, a lot of the people inside the White House. When the Roy – when the Roy Moore story broke, the president – well, when it really broke, the president was in Asia. And the staff – he was asleep, actually, when the really bad story hit. And the staff were trying to figure out what to do. And they were trying to game out what Trump’s reaction was going to be. And most of them instinctively were correct, which is that Trump saw a bit of himself in this situation, of his situation last year. And his instinct was not to come out and condemn him.
But it’s been mishandled, just it’s eye-popping how mishandled it’s been. I mean, the head of the Republican National Committee calls the president and tells him that she’s going to pull all RNC resources and funding from this race. The president gives his blessing to that. She does so. And then the White House comes out and does a de facto endorsement a week later. It’s been a complete mess.
MR. COSTA: And when you think about what’s happening in Alabama, Alexis, these allegations against Roy Moore are really just part of a broader discussion, a national reckoning I’d say, about sexual harassment. And Congress, in particular, has been rocked in recent weeks by claims against several high-profile members. And it’s important to point out that this is not a Republican or a Democratic issue.
This week Representative John Conyers of Michigan has faced new questions about allegations made against him by a former staff member and a taxpayer-funded settlement. Both Speaker Paul Ryan and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi have called on Conyers, the longest-serving member of Congress, to resign. A spokesperson for Conyers said Friday that the congressman will decide what to do in the next few days.
Where does Alabama fit into this national reckoning on sexual harassment?
ALEXIS SIMENDINGER: Well, you cannot imagine a situation in which the facts come in and make things more complicated than anticipating that Judge Moore, who has obviously been accused by multiple women, and including a woman who was a teenager, saying that he had sexual – unwanted sexual contact with her – that he could be coming into the Senate at the same time that Congress is also fighting off these stories in the Senate and the House and trying to rally around this concept that this is not a partisan issue and that Congress is going to improve its effort to be supportive of the victims of these kinds of unwanted either contacts or actual harassment.
MR. COSTA: And that point about support, how they’re going to support the victim, it has vexed both parties, Shawna. You listen – Paul Ryan, the House speaker, is on NPR on Friday. He’s asked, what’s the difference between Roy Moore’s accusers and President Trump’s accusers? And he gives kind of a non-answer. Minority Leader Pelosi, she’s asked about John Conyers, she’s asked about Al Franken. At first, she wavers a bit in her answer. Now she’s called on him to step down. Why is the leadership in both parties struggling?
MS. THOMAS: I mean, I think this comes back to politics, basically, in that if you – as Nancy Pelosi, say on Meet the Press, hey, I think – until you’ve sort of gamed things out, especially with Congressman Conyers – hey, I think he should step down, and that happens and you don’t get any reciprocation from the Republican side when bad behavior comes out about them, then are you – are you doing something that puts your party in jeopardy, and therefore maybe puts your ability to maybe take back the House of Representatives, maybe take back the Senate in jeopardy? It’s principle versus politics, and it’s hard to deal with.
MS. SIMENDINGER: And, to that point, the president’s advisor, Kellyanne Conway, was on TV saying: We need this vote. We need this vote. We need this Republican vote. A woman, right? And that did not go down too well. On Capitol Hill, what’s interesting too is that lawmakers are not sure how many more of these cases are going to emerge. And at The Hill we did an interview with Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy. And his description of the way that the House should – leadership should respond is zero tolerance. When we asked him, what is zero tolerance? You could tell that he was backing away, because in Congress everyone has their own little company.
MR. COSTA: What about revealing who the settlements were about?
MS. SIMENDINGER: Exactly. And they have not settled how they’re going to do that. And both the speaker and the majority leader say: Now, we have to be protective of the victims. Not all the victims or the accusers want their identities to come out about the settlement. But, remember, what we’re talking about is taxpayer money. They know they have to figure out something to deal with this.
MR. SWAN: I mean, it is a scandal what’s happening on Capitol Hill. It’s like something out of a 1940s gentleman’s club. I mean, this whole system is basically set up to protect the politician. Everything’s done behind – you know, clandestine. You know, it is – if you’re an accuser – if you’re a victim of sexual harassment on Capitol Hill, you have to go through – it’s barbaric, this process of appealing to this person and that person and then – and then at the end of it we don’t know what’s happened, the lawmaker gets – it’s a protection racket for perpetrators. And it is the last in this world where we’re seeing colliding, you know, consequences across all sorts of industries. It’s the last bastion of no consequences, so far. We see the private sector, people getting fired, losing their job. It is the last bastion of no consequences. And that has to change.
MS. THOMAS: And I think you pointed out, and you sort of said something similar, that they’re these own small businesses. This idea that every congressional office in some ways makes its own rules, has its own reputation, has its own way of working. And everything in those offices, and I talked to a lot of former staffers about this, and a couple of current staffers. Everything is about protecting your member of Congress, right? And so that is even bigger than just sexual harassment. That is harassment. That is the way members of Congress sometimes treat their staff. And if you don’t protect your member of Congress and something happens, or you come out and speak about something, they lose their job, then your whole office could lose their jobs. And when you think about that, that creates a situation where everybody is scared to say or do anything. But it also creates a situation where people can be harassed and maybe not take any consequences for it.
MR. COSTA: About consequences, I want to come back to – you said you interviewed Kevin McCarthy, the majority leader. And you think about, he wants to change the culture. And there’s now, thankfully, this idea that we’re going to believe people when they speak up, we encourage people to speak up. But what about the women who accused President Trump last year? We’re now in a different culture and environment in this country. But what about them, the women – the more than a dozen who stepped forward last year?
MS. SIMENDINGER: Well, Speaker Ryan was asked this question. And, you know, his way of dealing with it is, I don’t know about those cases. I can’t compare Judge Moore or the president to the – I’m just – we’re just talking about Congress here. And that’s the way they back off on dealing with it.
MR. COSTA: You can’t separate these allegations.
MS. SIMENDINGER: But what’s interesting is both the Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and the speaker are talking about accountability. The members themselves have to be accountable. That is the dilemma, because we know President Trump has denied this. At first, he was concerned about what the accusations were against Judge Moore. And then he said: He’s denied it. And he acted like he believed that, right, and encouraged people to believe that, you know, look, he’s believing that Judge Moore is right about this, that maybe he’s the victim.
MR. SWAN: And let’s just all remember that Judge Moore is accused of pedophilia with a 14 – so, sexual – unwanted sexual activity with a 14-year-old; and yet, my sources tell me, internal tracking on that campaign, he’s up by five or six points, which matches the public polls. He’s probably going to win. He’s probably going to take a seat in Congress.
MR. COSTA: Well, we’ll see. (Laughter.) We’ll see. The polls show him ahead.
MR. SWAN: I’m just saying. I’m just saying.
MR. COSTA: The polls show him ahead.
MR. SWAN: I’m just saying, if you take the current situation and the political dynamics in Alabama, you would have to say that it is more likely than not that he wins, I mean, just objectively based on the numbers currently. It’s an amazing situation.
MS. THOMAS: I mean, I think the one thing about President Trump that we have to remember that is a little bit different than the Roy Moore situation, other than the 14-year-old and the unwanted sexual conduct, is that there is one of those women accusers who currently has a pending case in district court in New York state. And that’s Summer Zervos, who’s represented by Gloria Allred, and that case is a defamation case. It is not trying to – there are no charges against President Trump for sexual assault or sexual harassment. But because of that case, they may end up subpoenaing multiple people. They may end up trying to get the president to speak about this itself. And so there is that still working its way through the court system that we may see something.
MS. SIMENDINGER: All I want to say is that, you know, everyone you talk to is saying that this is not done, this is going to be continuing, and that there are going to be more accounts of this. And we’ve seen that in other industries, and we’re going to see that in politics.
MS. THOMAS: And we’ve seen it in our own industry.
MR. COSTA: We’ve seen in its in our own industry, that is for sure. Every institution, every industry is now having more accountability. You see it in the media, people we know well; they are being held accountable. Politicians being held accountable: Senator Franken, Congressman Conyers. These legends of politics, these rising stars, all of them are being held accountable. The White House is pretty quiet.
MR. SWAN: It’s not a subject they want to talk about, for very obvious reasons, which you alluded to before: the guy at the top.
MR. COSTA: We’re going to have to leave it there. Thanks, everybody, for joining us for this conversation. And thank you for watching the Washington Week Extra.
And a reminder: On the regular show, we talked about the plea deal Robert Mueller reached with President Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, and the debate over tax reform. If you missed that, you can find it Friday after 10 p.m. and all weekend long on the Washington Week website. That’s PBS.org/WashingtonWeek. We’ll be back next week with another expanded edition of the Washington Week Extra. In the meantime, have a great weekend.