Roy Moore’s party has been punished for his refusal to do the right thing. While some Republican leaders wanted him to drop out of the Alabama Senate race after nine women accused him of sexual misconduct against them when they were teenagers, Moore refused – and went on to lose to Democrat Doug Jones in a special election Tuesday. That means Democrats who fretted that Al Franken shouldn’t have been pushed out of the Senate over the sexual misconduct allegations against him were wrong.
Moore’s insistence on staying in the race underscores how differently the nation’s main political parties have responded when their members have been accused of sexual harassment and assault. While the Democratic Party has forced influential legislators like Michigan Representative John Conyers and Minnesota Senator Al Franken to resign, Moore was ultimately supported by the Republican National Committee, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Trump himself – a man who not only has been accused of sexual harassment by at least 15 women but was caught on tape in 2005 boasting about kissing and groping women without their permission. (Republican congressman Trent Franks of Arizona resigned in response to sexual harassment allegations, but he did not face the public pressure from his party that Franken and Conyers did.)
Given this context, it’s tempting to say, as some liberals did on social media, that it’s wrong for Democrats to do the right thing by demanding more of their leaders. But the result in Alabama suggests that, aside from being right on the merits, dropping candidates who have been widely accused of sexual misconduct is good politics too.
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It’s impossible to imagine that Roy Moore would have lost otherwise. Alabama is an overwhelmingly Republican state, in which the dysfunctional Democratic Party has not won statewide in over a decade and did not even field a Senate candidate for the same seat in 2014. (Moore did not immediately concede on Tuesday night but experts say he stands almost no chance of making up Jones’s 1.5 percent margin of victory.)
That’s not to say that it’s always best for a party to dump someone the moment an allegation against them surfaces. There are many who believe that how legislators vote might ultimately be more important than their personal characteristics as individuals. Both Dahlia Lithwick at Slate and Michelle Goldberg at the New York Times pointed out before Jones’ win that forcing out alleged sexual predators creates a serious political and moral dilemma if it’s only Democrats who are willing to play by the new rules. If Democrats are put at a political disadvantage, they argued, that will ultimately harm women’s rights given that Democrats are the party that fights for abortion rights, access to contraception and protections in the workplace from sexual harassment and pay discrimination. As Lithwick puts it, for Franken to resign while Moore looked headed to victory creates the serious risk of “a broken and corroded system in which unilateral disarmament is going to destroy the very things we want to preserve.”
The dilemma is particularly acute in the case of Franken, since the behavior he’s accused of – mostly fleeting gropes of adult women while posing for photos with them – is objectionable, but considerably less heinous than the accusations against Trump and Moore. And, whatever his personal behavior, Franken has been a strong advocate for the interests of women and would have been a reliable vote against federal judges who oppose women’s rights. The rank hypocrisy and cynicism of Republicans who condemned Franken while supporting Moore is galling enough, but it would be even worse if this trade-off resulted in a Republican Senate majority that can confirm one or more Trump Supreme Court nominees, creating a durable majority to gut or outright overrule Roe v. Wade.
Franken’s replacement will be named by a Democratic governor, which makes the political downside of his resigning less than it would be if he would be replaced by a Republican. But it is only a temporary replacement until the next election: instead of holding Franken’s seat until his normally scheduled reelection in 2020, it will give Democrats two seats to defend in Minnesota in 2018. Minnesota is a swing state that only narrowly went for Hillary Clinton in 2016, so there’s a possibility that Franken’s resignation could cost the Democrats a crucial Senate seat, making their already-challenging aspiration of taking control of the Senate even harder to fulfill.
Does this mean the influential women in the Democratic Senate caucus who called for Franken’s resignation were wrong, at least from a purely political perspective? Not necessarily. While there’s a political risk in putting Franken’s seat up for grabs two years early, there are also real political risks to becoming the party that tolerates sexual predators in office, as the Republicans have just learned. At this point, thanks to the Democrats’ swift action, only the Republicans are vulnerable to that charge.
As Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight points out, polls show that the public is on the side of ejecting accused sexual predators — a finding underscored by Moore’s loss. And the 2018 and 2020 elections will turn on jurisdictions where Republicans have even less margin for error than Alabama. The Democrats’ gains in recent state elections in Virginia showed that the Republicans can lose a lot more support among educated suburbanites. Getting a reputation as the party that tolerates sexual predators in its ranks can only accelerate that trend. And aside from the political risks for both parties of harboring alleged sexual offenders, Democrats have an especially strong incentive because they serve a different constituency than Republicans. Most Democratic voters are women and, according to a recent TIME poll, Democrats are more likely than Republicans to believe the accusers and to favor a congressman of their own party resigning when accused.
Clearly there’s a political risk to doing the right thing. But Democrats should continue to stay on course and consider making an exception only when it’s unequivocally going to lead to much worse policy outcomes for women in the long run. Republicans now might want to consider doing the same.
(Editor’s note: This column has been corrected to reflect that Hillary Clinton won Minnesota in the 2016 presidential election.)
Scott Lemieux is a lecturer in the Department of Political Science at the University of Washington. @LemieuxLGM