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Sizing up the Alabama race: Party ID vs. a historically bad candidate

Can Moore still win? Absolutely, especially given the state’s GOP tilt. But with Jones’ five advantages above, don’t be shocked if he pulls off a victory.
Image: Doug Jones takes photos with supporters
Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate Doug Jones takes photos with supporters before speaking at a fish fry campaign event at Ensley Park on Nov. 18, 2017 in Birmingham, Alabama.Drew Angerer / Getty Images

First Read is your briefing from Meet the Press and the NBC Political Unit on the day's most important political stories and why they matter.

WASHINGTON — We’re officially a week out until the December 12 special election in Alabama to fill Jeff Sessions’ Senate seat. And here’s maybe the best way to view this toss-up contest: Its outcome hinges on which force is ultimately more powerful — the state’s gigantic advantage for Republican candidate, or the fact that Republicans nominated a historically bad candidate in this race.

Right now, Democrat Doug Jones enjoys five structural advantages over Republican Roy Moore:

  • Money: Per the latest fundraising report, Jones has outraised Moore by nearly a 6-to-1 margin, $10.2 million to $1.8 million.
  • Advertising: Over the airwaves, Jones has been outspending Moore by a 10-to-1 margin, with TV ads decrying a broken Washington ("I can work with Republicans better than Roy Moore can work with anyone," he says in one) and a broken health-care system (“Health care is broken. You know it – and I know it," he says in another).
  • Enthusiasm: Whether in purple Virginia or in red Georgia, Kansas and South Carolina, Democratic candidates have overperformed in 2017. And you can probably expect that trend to continue even in Alabama.
  • A low-turnout special election: Don’t forget that this is a special election taking place two weeks before Christmas, with no other major contest on the ballot. And a low-turnout affair benefits Jones – his path to victory is that Republican voters simply stay at home.
  • A historically bad opponent: Finally, and most importantly, Jones is facing off against a historically bad opponent. Here’s the latest damaging story to rock Roy Moore’s campaign: “Woman shares new evidence of relationship with Roy Moore when she was 17,” the Washington Post writes.

But Moore has one structural edge that neutralizes Jones’ five advantages: Alabama is one of the most Republican-leaning states in the country. Donald Trump, after all, won it by 28 points in 2016, 62 percent to 34 percent. And so Moore could underperform Trump by a whopping 25 points and still narrowly win this contest.

Add it all up, and this race is as competitive as you’ll see in Alabama. Throw out the polling, because we’re not sure anyone can gauge who, exactly, will turn out in this December 12 election. And keep this in mind: Jones right now has as good of a shot — if not a better one — than Republican Ed Gillespie had last month in Virginia. But that’s not the national perception of this race.

Can Moore still win? Absolutely, especially given the state’s GOP tilt. But with Jones’ five advantages above, don’t be shocked if he pulls off a victory next week.

Some GOP cavalry comes to Moore’s rescue

Given President Trump’s full-throated endorsement of Moore, the Republican National Committee is resuming financial support for the GOP nominee. The questions we have: By how much? And is it too late?

NBC’s Vaughn Hillyard and Alex Johnson: “The Republican National Committee resumed supporting Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore on Monday after President Donald Trump earlier endorsed Moore, a Republican official said. The RNC dropped out of a joint fundraising agreement with Moore three weeks ago as Moore was hit with multiple accusations of sexual misconduct with teenage girls decades ago. NBC News reported at the time that it had also ended its field operations in the state, where it deployed 11 operatives.”

“The decision will allow the RNC to begin injecting money back into the state, although the extent to which its re-engagement could affect the Dec. 12 special election … was unclear.”

Notably, the GOP’s Senate campaign arm — the National Republican Senatorial Committee — is still staying out of the contest.

And yesterday, Mitt Romney voiced his opposition to Moore, NBC’s Jonathan Allen reports. Roy Moore in the US Senate would be a stain on the GOP and on the nation," Romney tweeted yesterday. "Leigh Corfman and other victims are courageous heroes. No vote, no majority is worth losing our honor, our integrity."

PRRI poll: 31 percent of Republicans would prefer a different nominee in 2020

Speaking of the divides inside the GOP… A new poll from the Public Religion Research Institute this morning finds that — while Trump’s job approval among Republicans remains pretty solid, a sizable chunk of those in his own party would rather see someone else at the top of the ticket in 2020.

From one of us(!): “Three in ten Republicans — 31 percent — say that they’d like to see a different GOP nominee in the next presidential election, while 63 percent say they’re happy with the current president running for reelection as the party’s standard-bearer. While Trump’s support for reelection is solid among those who backed his 2016 run, he has done little to assuage the concerns of Republicans who supported one of his opponents during the 2016 GOP primary. Among Republicans who didn’t back Trump’s primary run, 60 percent say they would prefer to replace him on the ballot for 2020, while just 34 percent want him to be the nominee.” The divisions in the party could have political implications earlier than the next presidential cycle, by the way; the poll shows a seven-point advantage for Democrats on the generic ballot in 2018, with 44 percent of registered voters saying they prefer Democratic candidates in the midterm elections, compared to 37 percent who would choose Republicans.

Trump’s legal team is divided — and rattled

Turning to the Russia investigation, it’s becoming clear that President Trump’s legal team is rattled. The president is rattled. And anything is possible at this point.

NBC’s Kristen Welker reports that Trump lawyer Ty Cobb is distancing himself from the view that a president can obstruct justice. “Like many, I have read with interest today the analysis of the defense to obstruction. Professor Dershowitz has written extensively on this. As interesting as the academic discussion may be, and while I agree with professor Dershowtiz's analysis, the White House is not relying on technical defenses such as the one articulated by Dershowitz and others, prescient though those views may be,” Cobb said in a statement to NBC News.

A question worth asking: How soon until Dershowitz becomes lead attorney?

Prosecutors say Manafort wrote op-ed with man linked to Russian intelligence

Also on the Russia front: “Federal prosecutors are opposing Paul Manafort's request to be released from house arrest on bail, citing his recent efforts to co-write an opinion piece about his work in Ukraine with a person believed to have ties to Russian intelligence — and publish the piece anonymously,” NBC’s Tom Winter and Julia Ainsley write.

“Prosecutors filed an objection in federal court Monday that said, ‘Manafort worked on the draft with a long-time Russian colleague of Manafort's, who is currently based in Russia and assessed [by U.S. officials] to have ties to a Russian intelligence service.’”

The New York Times identifies that Russian colleague. “A person close to Mr. Manafort identified the associate as Konstantin V. Kilimnik, who worked for years as Mr. Manafort’s right-hand man in Ukraine and continued communicating with him throughout the 2016 presidential campaign. Mr. Kilimnik was born in Ukraine when it was still a part of the Soviet Union, and he served briefly in the Russian Army as a linguist, later telling associates that he had a background with Russian intelligence.”

Former Trump aide wasn’t exactly forthcoming to Congress about Team Trump’s interactions with Russians

The New York Times also reports that former Trump aide KT McFarland didn’t appear to be telling the truth to Congress about Team Trump’s interactions with the Russians. “K. T. McFarland served on the presidential transition team before becoming the White House deputy national security adviser. In July, she was questioned in writing by Senator Cory Booker, Democrat of New Jersey, on whether she had ever spoken to Mr. Flynn about his contacts with Sergey I. Kislyak, who was then the Russian ambassador to Washington, before Mr. Trump took office,” the Times writes.

“‘I am not aware of any of the issues or events described above,’ Ms. McFarland wrote in response, sidestepping a direct answer to the question. An email exchange obtained by The New York Times indicates that Ms. McFarland was aware at the time of a crucial Dec. 29 phone call between Mr. Flynn and Mr. Kislyak that was intercepted by American intelligence. During that call, Mr. Flynn urged Moscow to respond cautiously to sanctions just imposed by the Obama administration for Russia’s interference in the presidential election.”