WASHINGTON — Republican leaders in Washington are coming to grips with the possibility — perhaps even probability — that Alabama's Roy Moore will win his special election next Tuesday and join them in the capital.
Looking past allegations of sexual misconduct with Alabama teenagers, President Donald Trump now has endorsed Moore, and the Republican National Committee quickly followed suit late Monday, announcing it was returning the support it had pulled last month.
Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell, who once called on Moore to get out of the race, changed his rhetoric over the weekend to say that it was Alabama voters who should decide.
The changed tone — and Trump's decision to do away with any facade of distancing himself from the race — make it clear they are increasingly confident in Moore's chances of victory despite the continued unease of some other Republicans.
The special election is next Tuesday for the seat once held by Jeff Sessions, now the U.S. attorney general. Although the polls have showed a narrowing contest with Democrat Doug Jones, Alabama is a strongly Republican state and Democrats generally have little chance there.
A Moore victory would set up a potential clash with fellow Republicans in Congress, some of whom have resoundingly called on him to quit the race. While some have softened their rhetoric recently, others have said they still will try to expel him if he is elected.
Buoyed by the taste of his own success in Congress as the Republican tax bill inches closer to passage, Trump telephoned Moore on Monday to offer encouragement as well as support and also argued in a pair of tweets that Moore's vote was badly needed to push the president's policies forward.
Weeks ago, when accusations of sexual misconduct with teenagers first surfaced, Trump's spokesman had said the president believed Moore would "do the right thing and step aside" if the allegations were true.
Top Republicans had vowed to expel him from the Senate if he wins. Publicly and privately, GOP leaders described the allegations against Moore as credible and insisted there were no circumstances under which he should serve in the Senate.
Moore's campaign was wounded by accusations this fall of sexual misconduct, decades ago, made by women who were then teenagers. One of the women alleges he initiated sexual contact when she was 14.
Moore has denied the allegations, saying "I do not know any of these women. I did not date any of these women I did not engage in any sexual misconduct with anyone."
Trump, who has repeatedly noted Moore's denials, took a more political stance on Monday.
"Democrats refusal to give even one vote for massive Tax Cuts is why we need Republican Roy Moore to win in Alabama," Trump tweeted. "We need his vote on stopping crime, illegal immigration, Border Wall, Military, Pro Life, V.A., Judges 2nd Amendment and more."
In that same vein, longtime Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby said Trump's endorsement didn't surprise him. He said of the president, "I think he's interested, a lot of us are, in the numbers, being a Republican."
And Sen. Orrin Hatch, who traveled with Trump on Monday to Hatch's home state of Utah, said he realistically didn't have any choice. Hatch said, of Moore, "That's the only Republican you can possibly get down there at this time."
Trump first appeared to back Moore after his first choice, Sen. Luther Strange, lost the GOP primary for the seat once held by Attorney General Jeff Sessions. But the president went silent after The Washington Post reported on the allegations of sexual misconduct with two teens, ages 14 and 16, and efforts to date several others while Moore was a local prosecutor in his 30s.
By late last month, however, with pressure mounting from his former chief strategist Steve Bannon and other corners of his base, Trump was making clear that he preferred Moore, raising doubts about the candidate's accusers and criticizing Democrat Jones as the "liberal puppet" of Democratic leaders Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi.
Jones sidestepped questions about Trump's endorsement while suggesting the support of national Republicans like McConnell could do more harm than good in Alabama.
"Our campaign is going straight to the people of the Alabama because that's who my voters are. It's not the president, it's not Mitch McConnell," Jones told reporters outside a steel mill in suburban Birmingham. "Obviously Mitch McConnell has very little credibility in this state anyway, so I'm not worried about him at all."
Expelling a senator is no easy task. The Senate Ethics Committee would have to investigate, and a recommendation of expulsion could take years.