BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Roy Moore won a reprieve in his struggle to survive as a U.S. Senate candidate Thursday when the Alabama Republican Party affirmed it would continue backing him despite allegations that he sexually assaulted teenagers.
“Judge Moore has vehemently denied the allegations made against him,” state GOP Chairwoman Terry Lathan said in a written statement announcing the decision of a party steering committee to stand by Moore. “He deserves to be presumed innocent of the accusations unless proven otherwise. He will continue to take his case straight to the people of Alabama.”
She framed the election as a contrast between Moore, a conservative who backs President Donald Trump, and a Democrat who would thwart Trump’s agenda.
“We trust the Alabama voters in this election to have our beloved state and nation’s best interest at heart,” she said.
Trump, who has faced his own accusations of sexual harassment and assault, declined to join fellow Republicans in urging Moore to drop out of the race.
“Look, the president believes that these allegations are very troubling and should be taken seriously, and he thinks that the people of Alabama should make the decision on who their next senator should be,” White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said at a briefing Thursday in Washington.
Asked to explain his distinction between the allegations against Moore and the ones against Trump, she said: “I think the president has certainly a lot more insight into what he personally did or didn’t do, and he spoke out about that directly during the campaign.”
Trump supported the Republican National Committee’s withdrawal of financial support from Moore’s campaign, and he believes Moore should step aside if the accusations are true, she added.
Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey confirmed Thursday that she would not postpone the election, as some Republicans in Washington have suggested.
Moore gathered in Birmingham with leaders of the religious right Thursday to show solidarity in fighting what he called the “scurrilous false allegations” that started emerging last week in The Washington Post. He blamed Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell for the barrage of accusations.
“This is an effort by Mitch McConnell and his cronies to steal this election from the people of Alabama, and they will not stand for it,” he said after 90 minutes of testimonials by religious conservatives.
“I want to tell you who needs to step down — that’s Mitch McConnell,” Moore added.
The scandal has imperiled Republicans’ lock on the Senate seat vacated by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, giving Democrats a startling opportunity to weaken the GOP’s already fragile 52-48 vote majority.
A Moore defeat in the Dec. 12 special election would mark an extraordinary breach in the Deep South’s allegiance to the Republican Party. The scandal has given Democrat Doug Jones a realistic shot at winning the seat.
A Fox News poll released Thursday found Jones leading Moore among likely voters, 50 percent to 42 percent.
The allegations have threatened to undercut Moore’s standing in this strongly conservative state. One woman, Leigh Corfman, says that Moore molested her when she was 14 and he was 32, sexually touching her after the two stripped to their underwear.
Another woman, Beverly Young Nelson, says Moore sexually assaulted her when she was 16 and he was 30, grabbing her breasts and bruising her neck when he shoved her face into his crotch. A third woman, Tina Johnson, says Moore grabbed her buttocks when she visited his law office in 1991, when she was 28.
Multiple other women say Moore made unwanted advances when they were teenagers.
Moore, 70, has denied all the allegations. He says he never met Corfman, and he has accused Nelson of producing a forged Moore signature in her high school yearbook to back up her false allegation.
Leaders of the Republican Party have withdrawn their support from Moore. However, apart from Sen. Richard Shelby, who suggested Moore should consider stepping aside, Alabama’s GOP establishment has stuck by Moore.
“A lot of the stuff that’s out there is already being disproved,” said Rep. Bradley Byrne, R-Ala. “As time goes along, you’re going to find some other things are going to be disproved.”
Nonetheless, K.B. Forbes, a veteran GOP campaign operative who lives in Alabama and used to support Moore, launched a super PAC on Thursday to support Jones.
“We are encouraging lifelong Republicans to do the honorable thing: vote against pedophilia and sexual misconduct,” Forbes said.
(Jarvie, a special correspondent, reported from Birmingham, and Finnegan reported from Los Angeles. Times staff writer Lisa Mascaro contributed to this story from Washington.)
©2017 Los Angeles Times, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.