Updated on Friday at 12:40 a.m. ET
Roy Moore, the Republican nominee for the open Senate seat in Alabama, is facing an accusation from a woman who says that he initiated sexual contact when she was 14 years old and he was a 32-year-old assistant district attorney.
The Washington Post published a story Thursday documenting the accusations by Leigh Corfman, who spoke on the record to the paper along with her mother, as well as three other women who say Moore pursued romantic involvement when they were between the ages of 16 and 18 and he was in his early 30s. The age of consent in Alabama is 16.
The allegations threaten to roil the special Senate election next month where the former Alabama chief justice is set to face former U.S. Attorney Doug Jones. GOP leaders have already said that if the allegations are true, Moore should step aside.
Thursday evening, Vice President Pence became the most senior Republican thus far to respond to the allegations. "The Vice President found the allegations in the story disturbing and believes, if true, this would disqualify anyone from serving in office," Pence's press secretary, Alyssa Farah, said in a statement provided to NPR.
Moore, now 70, denied the allegations in a statement to the Post.
"These allegations are completely false and are a desperate political attack by the National Democrat Party and the Washington Post on this campaign," he said.
The newspaper says it based its reporting on interviews with more than 30 people.
In a statement, Moore's campaign chairman, Bill Armistead, said, "Judge Roy Moore has endured the most outlandish attacks on any candidate in the modern political arena, but this story in today's Washington Post alleging sexual impropriety takes the cake. National liberal organizations know their chosen candidate Doug Jones is in a death spiral, and this is their last ditch Hail Mary."
Moore later sent out a series of tweets blaming "The Obama-Clinton Machine's liberal media lapdogs," referring to "the forces of evil" arrayed against him and fellow conservatives who "are in the midst of a spiritual battle."
In September, Moore defeated appointed Sen. Luther Strange in the Republican primary runoff for the open U.S. Senate seat vacated by Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said in a statement, "If these allegations are true, he must step aside."
McConnell and his allied superPAC heavily backed Strange in the GOP primary, along with President Trump. Meanwhile, Moore was endorsed by Trump's former chief strategist Steve Bannon, who painted Strange as a creature of the Washington "swamp." Bannon touted Strange's loss as the first casualty in his war against the GOP establishment and his plans to primary other incumbents.
NPR has asked Bannon for comment on Moore and has not yet heard back.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, speaking to reporters en route to Vietnam, where the president will attend a regional economic meeting, said Trump believes "we cannot allow a mere allegation, in this case one from many years ago, to destroy a person's life."
"The president also believes that if these allegations are true, Judge Moore will do the right thing and step aside," Sanders said.
National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., echoed McConnell's call for Moore to withdraw if the allegations are true, calling them "deeply troubling." Several other senators, including some who had endorsed Moore, also said that he should step down from the race if the allegations are true. But Arizona's John McCain was more forceful. "The allegations against Roy Moore are deeply disturbing and disqualifying. He should immediately step aside and allow the people of Alabama to elect a candidate they can be proud of," he said in a statement.
Per Alabama law, however, it is too late for Moore's name to be taken off the ballot. According to John Bennett, the spokesman for the Alabama secretary of state's office, even if the state Republican Party notifies the secretary of state that it has withdrawn its nomination of Moore, his name will remain on the ballot. And in that case, even if Moore receives the most votes, he will not be certified the winner. Legal counsel in the secretary of state's office interprets state law to require that a new special election be ordered. The same would happen if Moore withdrew from the race — a new special election would have to be ordered, according to Bennett.
Strange or another Republican candidate could run as a write-in candidate in the Dec. 12 election. While Alabama does have a so-called sore loser law, that only prohibits a losing candidate from running on another party line for the same office he lost, not as a write-in candidate, according to Bennett.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, who won her own successful write-in campaign in 2010, told the New York Times she is calling for Strange to try that same path.
While many D.C. Republicans were rushing to condemn Moore if the allegations are true, some Alabama Republicans were defending Moore — even if some of the claims that he had dated underage teenage girls were true. Moore was single at the time of the allegations; he married his now-wife, Kayla, in 1985, when he was 38 and she was 24.
"Take the Bible. Zachariah and Elizabeth for instance. Zachariah was extremely old to marry Elizabeth and they became the parents of John the Baptist," Alabama State Auditor Jim Zeigler told the Washington Examiner. "Also take Joseph and Mary. Mary was a teenager and Joseph was an adult carpenter. They became parents of Jesus." (Christians believe that Jesus was immaculately conceived and is the child of God).
The allegations throw a wrench into the Alabama Senate race, which Republicans were already mildly fretting about even before the Post report, given Moore's controversial past.
Moore rose to fame after he refused to remove a monument of the Ten Commandments he'd had placed in the rotunda of the Alabama Judicial Building. That led to his being removed from the bench the first time. He was subsequently elected again to the bench but later suspended after ordering state judges to defy the Supreme Court's 2015 decision that legalized same-sex marriage across the country.
Moore has campaigned as a Christian nationalist, frequently touting his faith and conservative social positions. In the past, Moore has said that "homosexual conduct" should be illegal and has compared such acts to bestiality. The Post has also reported that Moore did not disclose the $180,000-per-year salary he took for part-time work he did for his charity, the Foundation for Moral Law.
Jones is not getting significant help yet from national Democrats, and even with the explosive allegations against Moore, he still likely faces an uphill battle to win in the deep red state. Jones has had the airwaves to himself, running spots detailing how he prosecuted KKK members responsible for the 1963 Birmingham church bombing that killed four young black girls.
Moore has a loyal conservative base that has helped propel him to success before and was instrumental in helping him win the primary, despite being heavily outspent. But the biggest threat seems to be a worry that moderate Republicans could simply stay home. That's a fear national GOP strategists had even before Thursday's Post report, given how polarizing Moore is.
The Alabama contest could prove pivotal in the fight for the Senate ahead of next year's midterms. Democrats need to flip three seats to win back control of the chamber, and they're facing a map where many of their incumbents in states Trump won are on defense. However, they have good chances in both Arizona and Nevada to flip Republican seats and were looking for a third GOP-held seat they could make competitive. Alabama could give them that answer.
Moore's campaign is already fundraising off the allegations, writing in an email to supporters asking for money that "The Obama-Clinton Machine's liberal media lapdogs just launched the most vicious and nasty round of attacks against me I've EVER faced....the forces of evil are on the march in our country."