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Commentary: Why Richard Shelby's rejection of Roy Moore isn't a very big deal

Sen. Richard Shelby speaks with reporters ahead of votes on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., December 6, 2017.

Aaron Bernstein / REUTERS

Last Updated Dec 11, 2017 10:30 PM EST

"I couldn't vote for Roy Moore. The state of Alabama deserves better." – Sen. Richard Shelby, senior senator of Alabama, Republican. 

Senator Richard Shelby has given his verdict on Judge Roy Moore. But will that sway the voters of Alabama who'll make the final judgment on Tuesday?

Don't bet on it.

Sen. Shelby is a popular Alabama Republican, no doubt about it. He got a whopping 64 percent of the vote when he ran for re-election last year, even edging out Donald Trump's impressive 62 percent. He's been in the U.S. Senate since the Reagan administration – he was elected as a Democrat, then switched parties in 1994. He has an A+ rating from the NRA and the endorsement of Alabama (Tea Party) Patriots.

In other words, nobody's going to accuse Sen. Shelby of being a moderate.

So, when Alabama's senior senator appeared on CNN's "State of the Union" with Jake Tapper to tell Alabama "I wouldn't vote for Roy Moore"—his first appearance on a major Sunday show since 2008, by the way—it should be a big deal.

Why isn't it? Why isn't the word of this popular, long-time politician likely to sway a significant number of voters?  The question answers itself in the phrase "long-time politician."  Donald Trump doesn't have a 96 percent (!) approval rating among Alabama Republicans because he's a Republican politician or a conservative politician.  Trump's passionate supporters are with him because he's not a politician at all.

If political heavyweights could swing political fights for Alabama Republican, Roy Moore wouldn't be on the ballot today.  The state's GOP bigwigs, including Sen. Shelby, overwhelmingly backed incumbent Republican Sen. Luther Strange in September's primary election, as did a certain, prominent out-of-towner: President Trump.

Judge Moore crushed Sen. Strange in the GOP primary anyway, as Republican voters ignored the endorsements and voted for the outsider.  If Sen. Shelby couldn't persuade Alabama Republicans to change their votes when they had other, conservative, GOP options, it's unlikely he can do so when the only other option is a pro-abortion Democrat.

It's true that the polls are all over the place. Two polls hit on Monday, a Fox News poll with the Democrat Doug Jones up by 10, and an Emerson University poll with Moore up by 9.  The Real Clear Politics average still favors Moore by 2.5 percent, but in an election where less than a quarter of the electorate is likely to show up, polling is only slightly better than guesswork.

Roy Moore's opponents are hopeful that the combination of new revelations about the judge's past, a tidal wave of negative ads from the Democrats (Jones is outspending Moore on TV by at least 7-1) and endorsements like Sen. Shelby's will convince Republican voters to abandon their party's nominee. But even that math makes no sense because the GOP voters most likely to be affected by these forces aren't likely to cross over and vote for a relatively liberal candidate like Jones.

(Note: Yes, Jones would be a moderate Democrat in most states. But in Alabama, he's basically Bernie Sanders with better hair.)

In fact, even Sen. Shelby wrote in a Republican—he declined to say who—rather than vote Democrat.  So the best-case scenario for Republicans trying to keep Roy Moore out of the Senate is that overall voter turnout goes down, which in turn makes the hard-core pro-Roy-Moore vote even more powerful. The smaller the election-day pie, the larger the slice taken by the GOP base.

Finally—and perhaps more importantly—Sen. Shelby's negative comments feed the same narrative as the barrage of out-of-state funded negative ads: Washington politicians and liberal outsiders don't want Alabamans to elect Roy Moore.

In the era of Trump, that may be the most powerful pro-Moore message of all.

  • Michael Graham

    CBSN contributor Michael Graham is a conservative columnist for the Boston Herald.