In his sternest rebuke yet, Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby said repeatedly Sunday his state can "do better" than electing fellow Republican Roy Moore to the U.S. Senate, making clear that a write-in candidate was far preferable to a man accused of sexual misconduct.
Days before the pivotal race, Shelby, who is Alabama's senior senator, said he had already cast an absentee ballot for another, unspecified Republican, even as other prominent state Republicans fell in line behind Moore.
Moore faces Democrat Doug Jones in the special election Tuesday to replace Jeff Sessions, now the U.S. attorney general.
"I couldn't vote for Roy Moore. I didn't vote for Roy Moore. But I wrote in a distinguished Republican name. And I think a lot of people could do that," Shelby told CNN's "State of the Union."
"The state of Alabama deserves better," he said.
"There's a lot of smoke," Shelby said of Moore and his accusers. "Got to be some fire somewhere."
The accusations against Moore have left many GOP voters and leaders in a quandary. Voters face the decision of whether to vote for Moore, accused of sexual misconduct with teenagers decades ago when he was a county prosecutor, or sending Jones to Washington, which would narrow the GOP's already precarious majority in the Senate.
They also could write in a name on their ballots or simply stay home. Meanwhile, most GOP politicians in the state must run for re-election next year — where they will face Moore's enthusiastic voting base at the polls.
Shelby said allegations that Moore had molested a 14-year-girl in particular were a "tipping point" in disqualifying him. His latest comments cast fresh doubt on a former judge that President Donald Trump and most Republican leaders in Alabama are backing to help maintain the party's narrow 52-48 majority in the Senate.
Shelby's outspokenness against a man who could become his colleague was the exception rather than the rule.
"I have stated both publicly and privately over the last month that unless these allegations were proven to be true I would continue to plan to vote for the Republican nominee, Judge Roy Moore," Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill wrote in a text message to The Associated Press. "I have already cast my absentee ballot and I voted for Judge Moore."
The AP tried to find out how Republican leaders from Alabama plan to vote. Most officeholders or their staffs responded, while others have publicly stated their plans during public appearances or to other media outlets.
However, several officeholders did not respond to calls, emails or texts from the AP. They include U.S. Reps. Martha Roby, Mike Rogers and Gary Palmer, as well as state Treasurer Young Boozer and state House Speaker Mac McCutcheon.
State officeholders who said they intended to vote for Moore often cited the need to keep the seat in Republican hands.
In addition to Merrill, others who plan to vote for Moore include Gov. Kay Ivey; Attorney General Steve Marshall; state Auditor Jim Zeigler; Agriculture Commissioner John McMillan; state Senate President Pro Tempore Del Marsh; and Public Service Commissioner Twinkle Andress Cavanaugh, who previously led the state GOP. Also voting for Moore are current state party head Terry Lathan and U.S. Reps. Mo Brooks of Huntsville and Robert Aderholt of Haleyville.
Shelby's decision has played prominently in Jones ads pointing out Republicans who are not voting for their party's nominee.
On Sunday, Shelby acknowledged that if Moore is elected, he would probably have to be seated in the Senate but that an Ethics Committee investigation was already been contemplated to remove him.
"I think that the Senate has to look at who is fit to serve in the Senate," he said.
CNN reported last month that U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne said he will vote Republican and that he does not cast write-in votes. In a statement to the AP, Byrne said it is up to voters to decide.
"Some serious allegations have been made and Judge Moore has vehemently denied them. Frankly, I don't think the people of Alabama want me, any national politician, or the national news media telling them what to think or how to vote," Byrne said in the statement. "The decision is ultimately up to the people of Alabama to evaluate the information they have before them and make an informed decision. We must respect the voters' decision."
Sen. Luther Strange, who lost to Moore in the Republican primary, did not respond to a request for comment from AP, but told The Washington Post recently that the election is up to voters.
"I'm staying out of it now. I think everybody knows how I feel about Judge Moore. We made our case and the voters made a different decision," Strange told the newspaper in a video on its website.
Sessions, who resigned from the Senate to join the Trump administration, declined to say how he would vote. Moore and Jones are competing for his old job.
"There have been some ads that may have suggested I endorsed a candidate, that is not so," Sessions said. "I believe that the people of Alabama will make their own decision."
State party loyalty rules could prohibit a GOP politician, or someone who aspires to be one, from publicly backing Moore's opponent. The rule says anyone who openly supports another party's nominee over a Republican could be barred from running as a Republican in the future.
Ivey became governor earlier this year after Robert Bentley resigned amid a sex scandal involving a much younger female political aide. When reached by the AP, Bentley declined to say who he is voting for Tuesday.
Ivey said last month that she has no reason to disbelieve the women who have accused Moore and is bothered by their allegations. But Ivey, who plans to run for governor in 2018, said she will vote for Moore anyway for the sake of GOP power in Congress. Her office did not respond to a request for an updated comment.
Associated Press writers Matthew Daly, Sadie Gurman, Donna Cassata and Hope Yen in Washington contributed to this report.