RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Senate Republicans are trying to put some space between themselves and Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore now that he has been accused of sexual misconduct that happened in the 1970s. In an explosive report in The Washington Post, several women say Roy Moore pursued relationships with them when they were just in their teens. He was in his 30s. Roy was an assistant district attorney at the time. In one case documented by The Post, Moore developed a sexual relationship with a girl who was just 14 years old at the time.
NPR's Debbie Elliott has been following Roy Moore's political career, and she joins us now. Debbie, what is Roy Moore saying about these allegations?
DEBBIE ELLIOT, BYLINE: Well, he's saying that they're completely false and a desperate political attack. You know, Moore is in this tighter-than-typical contest for a Republican in Alabama with Democrat Doug Jones. They've got a December 12 special election to fill the seat that was once held by Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
Moore is a firm - former Supreme Court justice. He's known for his religious conservative stances and for being removed from the bench twice for defying federal courts. And he immediately, you know, took to Twitter yesterday to defend himself, saying this was an attempt by the forces of evil to silence and shut up Christian conservatives. He also sent out an email trying to raise money on the report, calling this a spiritual battle. And in his signature defiant style declared, I refused to step down - stand down.
MARTIN: Stand down - but that's exactly what a lot of Republicans want him to do. What is the reaction in Washington to all of this?
ELLIOT: Well, I think the backlash was immediate and pretty severe. You had a lot of Senate Republicans calling the allegations deeply disturbing. John McCain said they were disqualifying. Alabama's other senator, Richard Shelby, said if the allegations are true, quote, "there's no place for Roy Moore in the United States Senate."
And that's what the president thinks, according to the press secretary in comments on the way to Vietnam with President Trump. Sarah Huckabee Sanders said that he does not believe a mere allegation from many years ago should destroy a person's life but that he also believes if the allegations are true, Judge Moore will do the right thing and step aside. Here's what Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had to say.
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MITCH MCCONNELL: If these allegations are true, Roy Moore should step aside.
ELLIOT: So just a chorus here. Now, to give a little context, Rachel, Trump, McConnell and the GOP establishment had all backed Moore's opponent in the primary in Alabama. They appointed incumbent Luther Strange. And former Trump adviser Steve Bannon was behind Moore. So you've got this Republican civil war at play, as well, here.
MARTIN: This is exposing that larger rift between the establishment and other candidates. So what does this mean for voters in Alabama? I mean, first of all, how is it playing in just the rank-and-file voters as they watch this unfold? And then what's it going to mean for their choices in the election?
ELLIOT: Well, Roy Moore's strongest supporters - again, mostly religious conservatives, rural voters - they perceive this as an attack coming from the swamp - you know, the sleazy political machine that he's vowing to fight. North Alabama resident Becky Ashley told the AP that it sounds like dirty politics for Moore's opponent. Here's what she said.
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BECKY ASHLEY: I don't believe them at all. I believe this is Doug Jones, some of his doings, you know? I just don't believe Roy Moore would do that.
ELLIOT: Now, some Alabama Republicans will just shrug it off because they just can't bring themselves to vote for a Democrat. The strangest defense, thus far, has come from the state auditor, Jim Zeigler, who tried to somehow justify the alleged behavior by actually naming relationships in the Bible that involved teenagers and grown men, even invoking Mary and Joseph - a little unsettling there.
Now, Alabama Governor Kay Ivey has been more measured. She calls the allegations disturbing but says she'll withhold judgment until all the facts are in. And that's been the response I've gotten from some of the people I've spoken with.
Republican state Senate candidate Jeff Boyd told me he's sickened by the allegations. He does sort of question the timing coming 30 some-odd years later and never coming up in the two runs that Judge Roy Moore had for the state Supreme Court. He says, you know, what's going on here? It sounds like Alabama is all of a sudden caught in this "House Of Cards" plot.
MARTIN: Right, art imitating life imitating art. So any word from Democratic candidate Doug Jones?
ELLIOT: A very brief statement from the campaign. Quote, "Roy Moore needs to answer these serious charges." You know, Jones, he's a former U.S. attorney from Birmingham. He's in a position to just sort of sit back and watch how Republicans respond to this.
This has been a year of scandal for Alabama Republicans. You know, the state's Republican governor resigned in disgrace in a sexually-tinged scandal. The former House speaker was convicted for using his public office for personal gain. So the voters here are the ones that suffer.
MARTIN: NPR's Debbie Elliott reporting this morning. Thanks so much, Debbie.
ELLIOT: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.