(CNN)Talk privately to any Washington Republican about Roy Moore's Senate candidacy before today and they would tell you that the former chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court was going to be a major problem given his long record of saying incredibly controversial things.
Republicans already had a Roy Moore problem, but it just got way, way worse
That doesn't even come close to describing the problems that Moore now poses to Senate Republicans -- and the GOP more broadly -- in the wake of allegations by four women that he pursued sexual relationship with them when they were between 14 and 18 years old and he was in his early thirties. The story was first reported by The Washington Post.
Moore denies the allegations, painting it as an attempt by the national Democratic Party -- and, somehow, the Post -- to discredit his frontrunning candidacy before his December 12 special election faceoff against Doug Jones.
Here's the key part of Moore's lengthy response to the allegations:
"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.
"The Washington Post has already endorsed the judge's opponent, and for months, they have engaged in a systematic campaign to distort the truth about the judge's record and career and derail his campaign. In fact, just two days ago, the Foundation for Moral Law sent a retraction demand to the Post for the false stories they wrote about the judge's work and compensation. But apparently, there is no end to what the Post will allege."
Before we go any further, let me clear one thing up: The Post's editorial board endorsed Jones' candidacy. The editorial board is entirely separate from the Post newsroom. I worked there for a decade and I had a total of one interaction with Fred Hiatt, who runs the editorial board; we talked about about high school sports.
But, more broadly: It appears that Moore is going to dig in and fight -- as evidenced by a four-tweet follow-up Thursday evening, which he ended with: "I will NEVER GIVE UP the fight!"
Which places Republicans not named Roy Moore in a very, very tough place.
The initial response from Senate Republicans is best articulated in this statement by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell: "If these allegations are true, he must step aside."
That sentiment was echoed by virtually every GOP senator who was willing to answer questions about the Moore story. (John McCain was a notable exception; "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 tweeted, without even an "if true" caveat.)
At best, the McConnell answer is a stop-gap one.
The situation is this: The Washington Post talked to 30 people for this story. They name -- and have spoken to -- four women who a) do not know each other b) did not contact the Post before the Post contacted them and c) all tell very similar stories about Moore's decades-ago approach and intentions. They confirm that one woman's mother was in an Alabama courtroom on the day the accuser said she first met Moore. (Her daughter was 14 at the time.)
This isn't just some story slap-dashed together by a news outlet you've never heard of before. This is a deeply reported piece in which the reporters are entirely transparent about how they came upon the story and reported it out. Only the most biased minds could read the Post story and conclude that it was a "hit piece" or some sort of partisan attack.
Given all of that, it's going to be very difficult for Republicans to stand firm behind Moore if he continues to say only that the whole story is an example of fake news. You can call names. But these allegations are serious and demand a serious response. Are these women in the Post piece all lying? If so, why?
What Senate Republicans are doing right now is crossing their fingers and hoping Moore gets out of the race as soon as possible. If he doesn't, he puts the party in a very, very bad place.
"I think if he does what he should do, does the right thing and steps aside, I don't think it will hurt the Republican Party," said Sen. John Thune, a member of Senate GOP leadership.
The problem for Senate Republicans is that they have next-to-no leverage on Moore. Senate Republicans who weighed in overwhelmingly chose Sen. Luther Strange over Moore in the GOP race to fill Attorney General Jeff Sessions' unexpired term. Moore won without them, running as a nationalist, populist along the lines of President Trump. (Trump endorsed Strange at the behest of McConnell but made clear that he was very unhappy he had picked the wrong horse following Moore's win.)
McConnell isn't likely to simply dial up Moore and tell him he needs to either find a way to definitively prove these allegations are false or get out of the race. That communication channel just isn't open.
That doesn't mean the Republican Party has no power here. According to the Alabama Secretary of State, Moore's nomination can be withdrawn either by the candidate (which seems unlikely) or the state party. It isn't clear how the state party would go about doing that, however, but if they could make it happen, Moore's votes would be invalidated even if he won. One more wrinkle: There appears to be no way that Moore's name could be replaced on the ballot, meaning that any attempt to keep the seat in their hands would require a write-in campaign.
Every second Moore stays in the race without a VERY convincing explanation for why these four women are either misremembering or flat-out wrong is a bad thing for Republicans.
Losing the Alabama seat -- Jones, if he won, would hold it only until Sessions' term expires in 2020 -- would make it harder for Republicans to get any of the Trump agenda passed. There's no question about that.
But allowing Moore to remain as the Republican nominee -- and maybe even a senator! -- amid these allegations would do far more lasting damage to the Republican brand.
Republicans need to find a way to get Moore gone ASAP -- and are likely to try, even it it means that doing so costs them a seat for the next 2+ years.