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When your party’s U.S. Senate nominee appears in a trending hashtag with the phrase “child molester,” things have gone terribly wrong. So why haven’t Republicans just abandoned Alabama’s Judge Roy Moore? Why not cut their losses and move on?

Because many in the GOP base don’t want them to. These voters would rather fight with Roy Moore than surrender to the establishment GOP.

There are pragmatic issues at play: It’s too late to replace Moore on the ballot in Alabama, and even if the GOP wanted to, there’s no sign the embattled judge is backing down. But setting those issues aside, the real reason Republicans are avoiding a direct confrontation with Roy Moore is because he’s standing on the fault line that’s threatening to destroy the party.

On one side are traditional or establishment Republicans who, to be fair, never liked Roy Moore to begin with. National Review, for example, has called for the GOP to dump Moore and reminded their readers of the judge’s other scandals—being removed from the bench twice for refusing to enforce the law; a $118,000 paycheck from part-time charity work he tried to hide, etc. Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake of Arizona want Moore to drop out now, too, regardless of whether the charges are proven or not.

Unfortunately for their cause, these are precisely the politicians who’ve driven part of the GOP base into the Trump/Bannon/Moore camp. Social conservatives and rural voters feel like they’re under assault. They want Republicans who’ll fight for them. Instead, they believe, the GOP establishment is nearly as hostile to their values as the Democrats. D.C. Republicans might not call them “deplorables” out loud, but they quietly nod in agreement.  

As Atlanta-based talk host and Christian conservative Erick Erickson put it:

“There are a lot of voters who are really damn tired of the culture war and they just want to be left alone. But the left won’t leave them alone. They’re coming for their churches’ tax exempt status. They are coming to force them to either get on board the secular progressive agenda or go into hiding.”

These voters believe Roy Moore will fight for them. And they know Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan won’t.  

And so you have Alabama politicians like Alabama state auditor Jim Zeigler making Biblical defenses of Moore’s alleged behavior (“Mary was a teenager. Joseph was an adult carpenter.”)  Fox’s Sean Hannity takes to the air, first to dismiss the accusation because the alleged activity with the 14-year-old “was consensual” (Hannity later walked that back). He then suggested Moore might turn out to be like Richard Jewell, the man wrongly accused of being the 1996 Olympic bomber.

This plays well on talk radio, but it doesn’t help Republicans with their real problem.

“Forget losing this seat, which is the short-term problem,” says Real Clear Politics Senior Elections Analyst Sean Trende. “Given the long-term problems the GOP face, this is exactly the story they don’t need.” The “long-term problem” Trende has in mind was evident Tuesday, when Republican Ed Gillespie lost among voters under age 45 by more than 20 points.

Older, white voters — particularly white men — are supporting the GOP in record numbers. But their percentage of the voting-age population is shrinking.  Republicans can’t win without them, but they can’t win with just those voters, either. Candidates like Roy Moore who literally wave guns at their campaign rallies and rail against same-sex marriage are sending a message to these voters that he’s on their side. But it’s not a message resonating with the next generation.

To win today, the GOP needs the populist/Trump wing of the party energized. But the outcome in the Virginia elections showed those voters alone aren’t enough. Virginia’s Ed Gillespie actually outperformed Trump among white, blue-collar voters, but still lost badly. The GOP needs to attract a more diverse pool of voters.

So Republicans talk about how the charges — “if proven” — are so awful that Moore should withdraw from the race, while knowing that proving charges like these from 40 years ago is nearly impossible. 

It may well just be politics, but it’s getting the GOP no closer to solving the problem embodied by Moore — that dumping him alienates the base they need today. Keeping him alienates the voters they need tomorrow.

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