About 24 hours before dozens of Democratic senators issued a clarion call for their colleague Al Franken to resign amid sexual harassment accusations, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee offered a rationale for Roy Moore staying in the Alabama U.S. Senate race amid similar charges.
“It’s down to the fact that as long as Al Franken is in the Senate, and Conyers is staying in office, then why not have Roy Moore?” he told Fox News Tuesday. As he spoke, Rep. John Conyers announced his retirement, effective that day, and by Thursday many expect Franken will no longer be a senator.
File Huckabee’s remarks under “bad timing,” sure. (He did not respond to a request for comment for this article.) But his interview underscored a significant political problem, one dogging both Democrats and Republicans as the sexual harassment issue has spread across industries and institutions throughout American society. Neither party, it appeared, was standing on moral high ground.
On Wednesday, Democratic senators sought to claim it by pushing Franken to resign just one day after Conyers -- the longest-serving House member -- resigned over harassment allegations. The calls from nearly three dozen senators, members of the House, and the chairman of the Democratic National Committee came less than a week before voters in Alabama head to the polls for a special election to replace Jeff Sessions. President Trump and the Republican National Committee are both backing Moore, who faces allegations from multiple women who say he pursued them -- or assaulted them – decades ago when they were teenagers and he was in his thirties.
Democrats face more reward than risk in pushing out Franken, who is expected to make an announcement about his future on Thursday. Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton is a Democrat, and would no doubt appoint a member of his party to fill the seat. Shepherding Franken out the door, then, puts the spotlight back on Republicans, many of whom have called for Moore to leave the race -- or want the chamber to expel him if he wins.
“It's not a good contrast for Republicans, coming in the wake of the president of the United States' endorsement of Roy Moore,” said GOP strategist Brian Walsh. “Senate Republicans have been put into a very difficult position by the president once again not putting the long-term interests of the party first.”
In several instances Wednesday, Democrats highlighted that contrast.
“I wish the Republicans would be taking the same kind of a responsible approach as the Democrats on this, frankly,” said Sen. Debbie Stabenow, a member of her party’s leadership. “I’m talking about a number of House members, the president. Roy Moore. There’s a list.”
Rep. Tim Ryan, who called on Franken and Conyers to resign last week, well before most of his fellow Democrats came around to that position, said he hoped the majority party would hold its members to the same standard.
“These are serious allegations. We want to try to shift the culture. We have to step up, and clearly the Republicans are not,” Ryan told RealClearPolitics. “It’s disgraceful to wrap your arms around a pervert and give him money and ignore that he’s a creep.”
Moore has consistently denied the allegations against him, and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has insisted that the Ethics Committee would open an investigation into his actions should he be elected next Tuesday. On Wednesday, McConnell said that while the committee was investigating Franken, it was clear the senator had lost the confidence of his colleagues and constituents. “I do not believe he can effectively serve the people of Minnesota in the U.S. Senate any longer,” he said.
Whether that response foreshadows how Republicans might handle Moore remains to be seen. Given his defiant stance, it is unlikely he would agree to step aside. The president’s endorsement and the support from the RNC could also give him political cover. Trump framed the Alabama race as a choice between a liberal Democrat and a candidate who will back his agenda.
That dynamic has made some Republicans uncomfortable. Sen. Mike Rounds said he doesn’t support Moore, and has called on him to drop out of the race. Still, he said he understood why some members of his party had reflexively backed the GOP nominee, preferring him over the Democrat, Doug Jones.
“The reality is that you have a conservative, a Republican, as opposed to a Democrat, which helps to maintain the majority in the Senate,” Rounds said, though he disagreed with that sentiment. “I think everybody understands their logic on it. It does not mean that most of us appreciate it or necessarily like it.”
Still, he argued that the contrast between how the respective parties reacted to Franken and Moore would not be fully clear until after Moore joined the Senate and faced an Ethics Committee review.
“He’s not here yet. I think once he gets here, then you can compare an example of one senator versus another senator at that point,” Rounds said.
For the GOP, a major concern is that a Moore victory would make his controversial past an issue across the Senate map in 2018. Democrats have already criticized Republican candidates over Trump’s support of Moore, and that of the RNC, and would certainly amplify those attacks if he wins. Sen. Lindsey Graham said he didn’t support Moore and didn’t like the RNC spending money to back him.
“If you think Roy Moore wins and it’s a plus for Republicans, you’re naive, because he would be on the ballot in every race in 2018 whether you want him to be or not,” Graham said. “There’s no winning in my view with Roy Moore.”
For Democrats, the decision to urge Franken to step down wasn’t easy. It took three weeks since the initial allegations against him for the calls to emerge, and several Democrats lamented the potential loss of Franken even as they expressed the need for him to leave.
“I hope that members of both political parties will be guided by sound principles, even when it’s painful,” said Sen. Dick Durbin, a member of party leadership, after echoing the resignation call on Wednesday. “This is painful. Al Franken is my friend.”
Some Democrats cautioned against comparing the responses from the two parties, or to frame the issue in political terms.
“It’s not a partisan issue. Sexual harassment is wrong. Groping people, propositioning them is unacceptable behavior,” Sen. Tim Kaine said. He was one of the few Democrats who did not publicly call on Franken to resign, saying he wanted to speak with him privately first. “Trying to think about it in partisan terms, it essentially kind of denigrates the importance of the issue.”