Roy Moore, who defeated Senator Luther Strange in Tuesday’s Alabama primary, is a nutcase. He has equated homosexuality with bestiality, and declared that it should be illegal. He told Vox’s Jeff Stein that there are communities in Illinois living under “sharia law.” He said that 9/11 was divine retribution for removing Christianity from public life, and refused to obey a federal order to remove a 5,280-pound granite block inscribed with the Ten Commandments that he had installed outside Alabama’s judicial building. He has said that Muslims shouldn’t be allowed to serve in Congress and that Islam is a “fake religion.” He was suspended from Alabama’s Supreme Court for refusing to recognize gay marriage, even after bans on gay marriage had been overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court.
And come December, he will almost certainly be Alabama’s next United States senator.
But that doesn’t mean that Democrats should throw in the towel and leave his Democratic opponent, Doug Jones, in the lurch. Jones is a career prosecutor who won murder convictions against the KKK members who bombed a Birmingham church in 1963, killing four black girls. He is new to electoral politics, has only raised $300,000 so far, and is competing in a deeply conservative state that Donald Trump won by 28 points—but he has the advantage of not having said things like “9/11 was divine retribution.” That Alabama Republicans have been undercut by a string of scandals only makes Jones’s sane, good government approach more appealing.
There are moral reasons for mounting a robust opposition to Moore, whose viewpoints are alarming and have no place in the Senate. An appalling hybrid of Donald Trump and Mike Pence, Moore’s theocratic leanings should terrify anyone concerned about a Republican Party that is only becoming more extreme. There’s a reason why Republican Senator Richard Shelby compared Moore to George Wallace.
But there are also very good political reasons to invest in the race. While they rally to his side after his primary victory, Republicans would prefer if Moore didn’t exist. Investing in Alabama will force them to play defense on what would normally be safe territory, in large part because Moore’s seat is so important: With a slim Senate majority and a sick John McCain, every vote counts. Ideally for Republicans, Moore will walk to victory without much fuss. Under no circumstance should Democrats let this happen. Instead, they should do everything they can to force the Republican establishment to defend Moore, while raising the temperature of the race itself. Every time Moore talks, he gets himself in trouble. Democrats should do everything in their power to make sure Republicans get in trouble, too.
Of the many mistakes made in the 2016 election, one of the biggest was the refusal to call Donald Trump a Republican. The Clinton campaign, seeking to shoot the moon, wanted to make a big showing among white, college-educated Republicans. It attempted to graft the worst aspects of conservatism and the recent history of the Republican Party onto Trump, in an attempt to woo voters who might feel misgivings about voting for a racist demagogue. But in surgically removing Trumpism from the Republican Party, Clinton gave swing voters in key states a chance to switch sides with minimal second-guesses.
This turned out to be a big miscalculation. It treated Trump like an aberration when he was, in fact, the culmination of decades of Republican evolution toward anti-government extremism. Even if Clinton had won the general election, this strategy would have come back to haunt her in the form of a right-wing Republican legislature out to undermine her at every turn.
Thankfully, the stakes in Alabama are much lower than they were in the Trump-Clinton election. But there’s a big opportunity here for Democrats. Roy Moore stands for what establishment Republicans—a rapidly dwindling caste—don’t want to publicly acknowledge that their party stands for, and he does so in in particularly flamboyant ways. It is not only that he is dogmatically anti-Muslim and anti-gay, but has repeatedly flouted federal laws in defense of unabashedly bigoted beliefs.
Democrats already have one good foil in Donald Trump, but there’s no reason to stop there. Democrats should force Republican senators, governors, and other officials to take a stand on Moore’s most controversial beliefs, making him a kind of litmus test for the party. In the past, a figure like Moore could have been characterized as an outlier, but in the Trump era, he is evidence that Trumpism is a cancer metastasizing within the Republican Party. Stopping Moore is equivalent to stopping that cancer from spreading to the rest of government.
As a matter of electoral strategy, Democrats are still reluctant to compete in unfamiliar territory. Making a strong run in Alabama in December could give hope to Democrats across red states in 2018. With Tennessee Senator Bob Corker announcing that his seat will be open next year, Democrats will have opportunities to offset their fundamental disadvantages (they are defending far more seats than Republicans). A true 50-state strategy, which national Democrats have said they want to implement, requires showing that you’re willing to make risky bets. It also requires painting your opponents in big, understandable terms, and Democrats will not get a better brush than Roy Moore.