Controversial Alabama Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore denied a Washington Post report Thursday that he engaged in sexual activity with a 14-year-old girl in the late 1970s, as prominent Republicans began to question whether he should remain in the race.
“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,” read a statement from Moore’s campaign, calling the story a “last ditch Hail Mary” by liberal organizations backing his Democratic opponent, Doug Jones.
“After over 40 years of public service, if any of these allegations were true, they would have been made public long before now,” the statement continued, with Moore calling the report a “completely false and desperate political attack.”
The Washington Post interviewed more than 30 people for its story, which included descriptions of a 32-year-old Moore kissing and removing the clothing of a 14-year-old girl in alleged encounters with her in 1979. Three other women told the newspaper that Moore courted them when they were 16 to 18 and he was in his 30s. At the time, the 14-year-old and her family members did not report the encounters to authorities, and none of the subjects of the report accused Moore of a crime. The age of consent in Alabama in 1979 was and remains 16.
Reached Thursday, Nancy Wells, the mother of the 14-year-old girl in the Post report, confirmed the account to ABC News. Another woman featured in the Post story, Debbie Wesson Gibson, who accuses Moore of asking her on a date and kissing her when she was 17 and he was in his 30s, told ABC News in a statement: “I stand by the interview I gave The Washington Post and feel that I am represented accurately in the story. Please refer to the article; I do not have any additional comment, thank you.”
The report immediately led to sweeping backlash in the political world, with a number of prominent members of Moore’s party calling for him to withdraw from the race if the story is accurate.
“If these allegations are true, he must step aside,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said in a statement.
“The allegations against Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore are deeply troubling,” Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado, the chairman of the National Republican Senate Committee, said in a statement. “If these allegations are found to be true, Roy Moore must drop out of the Alabama special Senate election.”
Unlike McConnell and Gardner, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., called for Moore to “immediately step aside,” without qualifiers about the authenticity of the story. “The allegations against Roy Moore are deeply disturbing and disqualifying,” he wrote on Twitter.
Vice President Mike Pence‘s press secretary Alyssa Farah said Pence “found the allegations in the story disturbing and believes, if true, this would disqualify anyone from serving in office.”
According to the Alabama secretary of state’s office, a candidate can be removed from the state’s ballot only if the request is submitted no later than 76 days before the election. With the special election for the Senate seat formerly occupied by U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions set for December 12, Moore’s name may not be removed should he withdraw.
If Moore steps aside, any votes cast for him will not be certified by canvassing boards, and any alternative Republican candidate would need to launch a write-in campaign.
Moore, a former Alabama chief justice who was twice removed from his post, defeated President Donald Trump–backed Sen. Luther Strange in a September primary runoff to become the GOP’s Senate nominee. He has since been endorsed by a number of sitting U.S. senators, including McConnell, Gardner, Majority Whip John Cornyn and Ted Cruz.
Strange told ABC News on Thursday that he found the story “very, very disturbing.” Asked if he would be willing to run as a write-in candidate, he responded, “No comment.”
In a statement, Jones’ campaign said, “Roy Moore needs to answer these serious charges.”