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Polls In Alabama Indicate Tuesday's Special Election Is Unusually Close

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We'd like to turn now to politics, especially to that closely-watched special election in Alabama on Tuesday, where voters will decide whether Republican Roy Moore or Democrat Doug Jones will fill their U.S. Senate vacancy. Moore, of course, has been accused of sexual misconduct involving minors, and the polls show the race is unusually close for Alabama, where Donald Trump was the overwhelming favorite in the 2016 presidential race. And as the race has gotten more competitive, President Trump has doubled down on his endorsement for Moore, and the Republican National Committee, having pulled its support for Moore after the allegations first surfaced, decided to get back in.

And all of this is causing something of a crisis of conscience, strategy and maybe even identity for conservative Republicans who have been debating deep questions of morality alongside questions of what Moore means to the Republican brand. Today, for example, Senator Richard Shelby, the senior Republican Senator from Alabama, told CNN that he could not vote for Moore.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RICHARD SHELBY: When it got to the 14-year-old's story, that was enough for me. I said, I can't vote for Roy Moore.

MARTIN: This debate has been playing out with particular force in the pages of conservative opinion journals, so we called Ben Domenech to hear more about that. He is the co-founder of the conservative site The Federalist. And he's with us now in our studios here in Washington, D.C. Ben, thanks so much for coming.

BEN DOMENECH: Great to be with you.

MARTIN: The Federalist recently published a piece that got a lot of attention. The author, an associate professor at a baptist university in Alabama, made the argument for Moore. I mean, and one of his arguments was that at the time that Moore was in his 30s, it wasn't that unusual to pursue women who were much younger for all kinds of, you know, reasons that you could argue with or debate. Apparently, that piece got a lot of criticism, and you pushed back hard, saying, you know, people have a right to hear these arguments. Could you just describe for us what you think that debate was about?

DOMENECH: So I believe it's important to feature ideas like that because I want to understand them. I - if Roy Moore is polling at a couple points ahead or tied with Doug Jones in Alabama, I want to understand the mindset of the people in that 45 to 50 percent who are supporting him. I personally would not vote for Roy Moore, but I think that it's one of these things where, you know, we, for a long time there, there was - within conservative journals in 2015 and 2016, there was kind of a ban on anybody supporting Donald Trump.

There was just, like, very few people who were going to kind of - publicly supporting him in the pages of center-right opinion journals. And I thought that was a mistake at the time because it was like, if this guy is polling at 30 percent, there have to be conservatives out there who are supporting him. I think it's important to understand the world as it is and not as we would like to pretend it to be. And I think the world as it is right now is very tribal.

MARTIN: Well, the leadership of the Democratic Party at least - it's really not clear where the base is - but where the leadership of the party is at least is handling the whole sexual harassment question very differently - at least, if you judge by Senator Al Franken, who...

DOMENECH: Yes.

MARTIN: ...And Congressman John Conyers, who both were pressured to resign. Are these strictly political calculations, or are there different strains of what constitutes morality in each party?

DOMENECH: I'm going to go out on a limb here because I'm going to defend Al Franken. I think that Al Franken was a sacrificial lamb. I think that he was pushed out because of the Roy Moore scenario. I'm actually a little concerned because if you adopt the standard that a guy, you know, attempting to kiss someone before he's a senator, that that's the level of you need to push people out, you're going to have a lot of turnover in the Senate and in the House. Franken clearly seemed frustrated that he was being pushed out. He was very successful. I actually think he would have been an excellent candidate for Democrats in 2020 potentially against Donald Trump.

I personally think, though, that Democrats are clearly setting themselves up to say both parties have problems. We deal with ours. And we deal with it by getting rid of the people involved. And that really challenges Republicans, I think, in a lot of different ways because, you know, what do they do with a Roy Moore? If the people of Alabama decide to send Roy Moore to the Senate, can the Senate reasonably say that for the first time in their history, they're going to kick someone out of the body for something other than being a traitor to the United States of America? That's a hard thing to do, especially when it's allegations that are more than 30 years old.

MARTIN: Has anything been learned or gained from this? I mean, we've heard a lot of people talking about how painful this is, how ugly it is, how they wish they weren't having this debate. I can't believe this is the choice. But is there some lesson to be learned from this, particularly from the standpoint of people who are conservatives but can't stomach him?

DOMENECH: The assumption, I think, of a lot of people in the wake of the Tea Party was that conservatives were angry. I think it turns out that everybody is angry. And it's just a much angrier country in a lot of ways that don't line up particularly with one ideology or a priority or the Constitution or any of these tricorne-hat people. You know, it's much more about kind of a frustration that nothing is working. And they keep trying to send change agents, and nothing changes.

And I think that that's led us to this point where, now, even the craziest candidates, as long as they are something different than what's there, people are willing to support it. And I think the lesson there is one that should be really concerning for us because people no longer, I think, really care what the point or what kind of change would be achieved. They just know they don't like the way things are going, and they want something different.

MARTIN: That's Ben Domenech. He's of The Federalist. He was kind enough to stop by our studios in Washington, D.C. Ben, thanks so much for speaking with us.

DOMENECH: Always a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.