WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said on Tuesday that he wants to work with the White House to explore ways to keep embattled Senate candidate Roy Moore from taking office.
Speaking to reporters at the U.S. Capitol, McConnell said he had been in contact with President Donald Trump and others about sexual misconduct allegations against Moore.
“He’s obviously not fit to be in the United States Senate,” McConnell said, “and we’ve looked at all the options to try and prevent that from happening.”
Five women have accused Moore, a Republican, of sexual misconduct stemming from when he was in his 30s and they were teenagers. Moore, now 70, has denied the allegations.
Trump returns to Washington from a 12-day trip to Asia on Tuesday evening, and McConnell said he planned to discuss Moore’s situation with the president. Both are Republicans.
McConnell said he had also spoken with Vice President Mike Pence and White House Chief of Staff John Kelly about Moore.
Trump supported Moore’s opponent, Luther Strange, in the Republican primary but threw his support to the former Alabama Supreme Court chief justice after Strange was defeated.
McConnell said Republicans were still considering having a candidate launch a write-in campaign against Moore for the Dec. 12 special election. Speculation has centered around Strange and the current U.S. attorney general, Jeff Sessions, as possibilities.
McConnell said later in the day that Sessions, who left the Senate seat that is in contention to become attorney general, would be a plausible write-in candidate.
“He fits the mold of somebody who might be able to pull off a write-in,” the majority leader said during a forum on the economy.
Under state law, Moore cannot be removed from the ballot. Before the allegations surfaced, he had been heavily favored to defeat his Democratic opponent, former U.S. Attorney Doug Jones.
“Obviously this close to the election, it’s a very complicated matter,” McConnell said earlier.
Moore has suggested that McConnell and other establishment Republicans were working in tandem with news media to discredit him.
After McConnell’s remarks, Moore responded by tweeting: “The good people of Alabama, not the Washington elite who wallow in the swamp, will decide this election!”
The election is key to Republican control of the Senate. If a Republican wins the race, it would preserve the Republican hold on 52 seats in the 100-member upper chamber.
McConnell on Monday urged Moore to leave the race, while Senator Cory Gardner, who chairs the Republican Party’s Senate campaign arm, suggested the Senate should expel Moore should he continue campaigning and win.
Republicans worry that a write-in candidacy would split the Republican vote and give the seat to Doug Jones.
In Birmingham, Alabama, Jones told reporters his campaign had no plans to directly attack Moore over the allegations in a bid to capitalize on the furor.
”We’re going to stay in our lane. We’re going to talk about the issues that we continue to talk about,” he said. “We will bring up his record, his previous record, other people will bring up the issues of the day. And people will have a choice.”
Jones’ campaign released a new ad on Tuesday featuring Republican voters who say they are backing the Democrat.
“I‘m a Republican, but Roy Moore – no way,” one voter says in the ad.
The national Democratic Party, however, has yet to directly invest in the race beyond funds to build the state party, and has not changed that stance since the Moore allegations surfaced.
Earlier in the day, Sessions said in testimony before Congress that he has no reason to doubt the five women who have accused Moore of misconduct when they were in their teens.
At the same time, the House of Representatives’ top Republican, Speaker Paul Ryan, said he believes Moore’s accusers and that Moore should leave the race.
“If he cares about the values and people he claims to care about, then he should step aside,” Ryan told a news conference.
Kevin McCarthy, the No. 2 House Republican, also pressed Moore to step aside, “I think he ought to do the right thing and pull back and have somebody else run,” he told CNBC.
On Monday, Beverly Young Nelson became the fifth woman to accuse Moore of misconduct, saying he sexually assaulted her when she was 16 and he was a prosecuting attorney in his 30s.
Moore, a Christian conservative, said on Monday that Nelson’s accusations are “absolutely false.”
Moore has denied the allegations first raised in a Washington Post story about his relationships with four women when they were teenagers, including a charge he initiated sexual contact with a 14-year-old girl when he was in his 30s.
Reuters was unable to independently confirm any of the allegations and accusations.
Reporting by James Oliphant and John WhitesidesAdditional reporting by Richard Cowan, Susan Heavey, Sarah N. Lynch, Warren Strobel, Susan Cornwell and Jason LangeEditing by Jonathan Oatis