Alabama GOP Sen. Richard Shelby is confronting a fierce backlash from conservatives over his refusal to support Roy Moore in last month’s special election — with Moore backers pushing a censure resolution and robocall campaign targeting the powerful lawmaker.
Moore’s supporters are furious with Shelby over his remark days before the Dec. 12 election that he “couldn’t vote for Roy Moore,” a controversial former state judge who was facing allegations of child molestation. Instead, Shelby said he would write-in the name of another unnamed Republican.
Moore’s backers say the comments from the 83-year-old dean of Alabama’s congressional delegation effectively delivered the election to Democrat Doug Jones, and now they’re fighting back.
This week, three Moore supporters submitted a resolution to the Alabama Republican Party executive committee calling for Shelby to be censured. It argues that Shelby “publicly encouraged Republicans and all voters to write in a candidate instead of voting the Republican Candidate Judge Roy Moore,” and that his “public speech was then used by the Democrat Candidate in robocalls to sway voters to not vote for Judge Roy Moore.”
The move came after a pro-Moore outside group, Courageous Conservatives PAC, ran robocalls last month describing Shelby as a turncoat and calling on him to resign..
“Sen. Richard Shelby stabbed President Trump and conservatives in the back,” said one of the calls, which urged listeners to call his office and complain. “Tell Shelby you’ll never forget his disloyalty to President Trump and the Republican Party for his treasonous actions. Tell Shelby he’s betrayed his trust to Alabamians and he should resign his office. Call now.”
The censure resolution is unlikely to gain traction against Shelby, an iconic figure in Alabama politics who skated to a sixth and probably final term in 2016. But it shows how a race that dominated national politics for months and badly embarrassed President Donald Trump, who gave Moore his full-throated endorsement, continues to tear at the party.
Bankrolling the anti-Shelby campaign is Dallas investor Christopher Ekstrom, a prolific GOP donor who has contributed nearly $300,000 to conservative and anti-establishment causes since 2012, according to federal records.
In an interview, Ekstrom likened Shelby to Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker and Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, two of Trump’s most outspoken Republican critics in Congress. Both men are retiring after this year.
“We no longer have Bob Corker to kick around, we no longer have Jeff Flake to kick around, but we do have Richard Shelby to kick around up and down the street until he gets out,” Ekstrom said.
Shelby, he added, had “destroyed what was a very strong GOP in Alabama.”
Ekstrom said the robocall was designed to lay the groundwork for the censure and that he’d been in touch with people in the state who supported the resolution. Still unclear is whether Moore himself supports the retaliation campaign. Multiple Moore campaign aides did not respond to requests for comment.
Shelby’s office said the censure effort threatened to split Republicans at a critical juncture.
“It is unfortunate to hear that instead of unifying the party ahead of its important 2018 election cycle, people within the Alabama GOP are making a shortsighted attempt to divide the party over Sen. Shelby’s noble stance,” said the senator’s spokeswoman Blair Taylor.
The censure is expected to come before the state Republican Party’s resolutions committee later this month. A majority of the seven-person panel is needed for it to pass. If it fails, Moore supporters can bring it up at next month’s Alabama Republican Party executive committee meeting, where it would need two-thirds support.
The resolution would have little practical effect even if it were approved, state Republicans say, though it would be seen as a harsh public rebuke.
While the censure effort is a long-shot, Alabama Republicans say it highlights the ongoing tensions over the race.
“People are saying that anytime Republicans in Washington are a vote short, Shelby helped make that happen," said Scott Beason, a conservative former state senator. "Folks just think he did not have to do what he did.”
Moore’s backers, Beason added, are convinced Shelby “gave the write-in campaign legitimacy and that he undermined the Republican nominee.”
Some of Shelby’s closest allies are calling on the party to reject the censure, arguing that it’s long past time to move on.
“It’s stunningly dumb,” said former Republican Sen. Luther Strange, who was appointed to the seat on an interim basis early last year served alongside Shelby. “The party needs to unite.”
Shelby isn’t the first senator to face a threat from conservative grassroots forces within his own state party. In 2014, Arizona Sen. John McCain was censured by state Republicans for what they called an insufficiently conservative record.
McCain later hit back, launching an ambitious campaign to reshape the Arizona GOP, ridding it of conservative foes and replacing them with close allies.
Some Alabama Republicans are shrugging off the campaign against Shelby, who they argue had little choice but to line up against the deeply divisive Moore.
“I would publicly urge the Alabama Republican Party, if they’re going to adopt any resolution,” said Bill Canary, the president and CEO of the Business Council of Alabama, “to adopt one that commends Sen. Shelby for his service to the state.”