In a setback for President Obama, the Senate today sank his nomination to head the Justice Department’s civil rights division, at a time when the war over voting is increasingly central to our politics, after seven Senate Dems joined Republicans to vote No. They were apparently spooked by Republican attacks on Debo Adegbile for his role in representing Mumia Abu-Jamal, whose case became an international story after he was convicted of killing a cop in Philadelphia in 1981.

The seven Dems who voted against Debo Adegbile are Bob Casey, Chris Coons, Joe Donnelly, Heidi Heitkamp, Joe Manchin, Mark Pryor, and John Walsh. Of them, five are from red states (Donnelly, Heitkamp, Manchin, Walsh, and Pryor), though only the last two are up for reelection this year (as is Coons).

Dems joined in sinking Adegbile even though he has a well regarded civil rights record. Adam Serwer explains:

As the former head of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Debo Adegbile had racked up an extensive resume in civil rights litigation and had the backing of civil rights groups. But Republicans focused on the NAACP LDF’s representation of Mumia Abu-Jamal, who was convicted of killing Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner in 1981, in order to derail Adegbile’s nomination.

Although Adegbile was a child when Abu-Jamal was convicted, the NAACP LDF later represented him during his appeals process – a fact Republicans used to argue Adegbile was unfit to run the division. Adegbile had worked on a legal brief that argued that the jury instructions during Abu-Jamal’s sentencing were improper…it was the NAACP LDF’s defense of Abu-Jamal that that the Senate GOP focused their fire on. That likely spooked seven Senate Democrats, some of whom are facing tough reelection campaigns, into casting votes against Adegbile.

The New York Times adds: “As the head of the N.A.A.C.P. legal fund, Mr. Adegbile was not directly involved in Mr. Abu-Jamal’s defense, and the group stepped into the case 25 years after the murder.” Dems who supported Adegbile argued he should not be blamed for the conduct of the man he represented, and that so doing undercuts the foundations of the legal system.

Opposition from Casey is perhaps understandable, since he represents Pennsylvania, and as Ed Kilgore points out, Coons represents part of the Philadelphia media market in Delaware. Coons claims he couldn’t support a nominee that would “face visceral opposition from law enforcement,” which says nothing of the nominee’s qualifications for the job at hand. Coons’ desire to establish a high profile on voting rights issues apparently didn’t weigh heavily enough to tip him towards Yes.

One possible explanation for what happened: Culture war paranoia is alive and well among Democrats. At a time when Dems are increasingly emboldened to take stands on gay rights, gun control, immigration and even abortion that once would have given them far more trepidation, echoes of a battle that feels culturally and politically out of a bygone era were enough to sink a nominee that would have been central to the battle over voting access, which is increasingly important to Dems and their core constituencies in the present. This, even though the once-feared label “soft on crime” seemed to have lost much of its potency against Dems long, long ago.

Republicans are psyched that Dems succumbed to their attacks. A spokesman for Mitch McConnell gloated: “I bet Dems are lining up right now to thank the Dem leadership for making them vote on the failed nomination.”

In that contest, it’s noteworthy that two very vulnerable red state Dems  — Kay Hagan and Mary Landrieu — voted Yes. Both also backed expanded background checks, another vote that was supposed to cause their instant political self-immolation. It’ll be interesting to see if they pay any political price whatsoever for today’s vote.

Greg Sargent writes The Plum Line blog, a reported opinion blog with a liberal slant -- what you might call “opinionated reporting” from the left.