Roy Moore and the party that makes you cringe

Former Alabama Chief Justice and U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore at a news conference earlier this month.
Former Alabama Chief Justice and U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore at a news conference earlier this month. AP

I drove across Alabama last week for Thanksgiving with my wife’s family. We passed through a college town and the state capital. We drove hours on timber-lined roads in rural counties. Not once did we see a campaign sign for Roy Moore.

We did see signs in Auburn for Moore’s U.S. Senate opponent, Democrat Doug Jones, but that wasn’t a surprise in a college town. What was surprising is that in the many places Donald Trump signs dotted the landscape in 2016, no one felt compelled to proclaim any front-lawn love for Moore.

I’m not foolish enough to predict elections based on yard signs, especially in the Heart of Dixie. Well-seasoned Alabamians will tell you that long ago, it was hard to find folks who’d say they were fans of George Wallace, yet he still managed to stay in the Governor’s mansion every four years.

But if Roy Moore somehow loses – or if the Democrat makes it as close as polls show – it won’t only be because Alabama voters think a child molester shouldn’t be in any office. It will be because Moore is representing them.

It’s a reminder of a very basic political truth: Never underestimate the power of embarrassment.

You might think Alabama is long past its point of shame, but things are more complicated than that in the state I used to call home. Alabama, more than most places, wrestles with the worst of itself. Yes, its countryside is dotted with Confederate flags and statues, but it also has publicly repented for its racist past with memorials from Selma to Birmingham.

More recently, it’s gone through a particularly awful stretch. The Republican governor resigned this year after a sex scandal. The Republican House Speaker was convicted of a dozen felony ethics charges. And now, Roy Moore.

That’s enough to bother people who you might not think would be bothered – reliable Republicans, many of whom were embarrassed by Moore when he was outed as a predator. There’s enough of those Republicans to make the Dec. 12 election close. The rest of us should pay attention to them.

Here’s why: Political observers, professional and otherwise, spend too much time fretting about the 35 or so percent of voters who will never vote for anyone other than a Republican, including Donald Trump. The next three years of elections will be decided by another 15 percent – voters who are moderate to conservative, and embarrassed. They’re uneasy with a president who’s personally distasteful to them. They sure don’t want to be aligned with Roy Moore.

North Carolinians should recognize at least a little of this. We endured four years of the country’s ridicule under Gov. Pat McCrory, including HB2 and a parade of similarly harsh measures. The N.C. House and Senate were as much to blame for those headlines, but McCrory was the most public face in Raleigh. He lost last November despite Trump winning the state.

It’s why Republicans in Washington dread a Moore victory as much as some Republicans in Alabama. Not only is the GOP becoming the party that takes your health care benefits and tilts tax reform toward the rich. It’s the party that makes you cringe. In politics, there may be nothing worse.

Peter: @saintorange; pstonge@charlotteobserver.com