By Paul Kane and Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, August 5, 2009
Senate Republicans have lined up in staunch opposition to the confirmation of Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor, rejecting concerns about alienating the growing Hispanic vote.
Even before debate began Tuesday night, almost three-fourths of the Senate Republican Conference had already announced opposition to the first Latina ever nominated to the nation's highest court. The party's 2008 standard bearer, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), joined the chorus of opposition this week, and no likely contender for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination has spoken in support of confirmation.
Sotomayor has the backing of every Senate Democrat and at least a half-dozen Senate Republicans, assuring her of confirmation by week's end. But the 28 already-pronounced no votes from Republicans would dwarf the single-digit opposition drawn by the two previous nominees from a Democratic president, Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer.
Most Senate Republicans say opposition to Sotomayor is a principled stand based on the belief that her public speeches reveal a personal bias in her judicial philosophy. Republicans have cited her views on Second Amendment cases, speeches she has given during her time as a federal judge and a key ruling on affirmative action -- all issues that are of sharp interest to conservative-base voters.
But some senators and Republican strategists worry that efforts to shore up support from conservative voters who dominate the GOP primaries could become a missed opportunity to extend an olive branch to Latino voters, who gave just 31 percent of their ballots to McCain last fall.
Even some of Sotomayor's opponents said they recognize the decision is fraught with some peril. "I don't feel happy about being against Sonia Sotomayor. I'm not happy about it," said Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), who has voted in favor of every Supreme Court nominee since he was first elected in 1976. "When I add up all the things that are wrong [with Sotomayor's record], I think it's the right thing to do, but it's not a happy day for me."
Republicans entered this confirmation battle holding just 40 seats and with Obama's approval rating above 60 percent when he nominated Sotomayor 10 weeks ago. They also entered the fray rejecting conservative commentators such as radio host Rush Limbaugh and former House speaker Newt Gingrich, both of whom labeled her "racist" for speeches suggesting that "wise Latina" judges would make better rulings than white male judges.
GOP senators began a two-pronged effort to personally compliment the nominee's background while also citing her rulings as grounds for opposing her, apparently hoping not to offend Latino voters or conservative activists.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Tuesday that her "wise Latina" speeches suggested that her empathy, a quality Obama said he wanted, would trump blind adherence to the law. He particularly criticized her joint ruling with other appellate court judges in a firefighters' case, which said that the town of New Haven, Conn., could reject the results of a promotion test based on the fact that few minorities scored well. In June, the Supreme Court overturned that ruling.
"Judge Sotomayor has impressed all of us with her life story. But if empathy is the new standard, then the burden is on nominees like her, who are chosen on that basis, to demonstrate a firm commitment to equal justice under the law," McConnell said.
With Obama's approval rating falling as he has become enmeshed in the health-care debate, Republicans have grown more comfortable opposing Sotomayor. Still, she already has twice as many votes from the minority party as Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. had after being nominated by in 2006 by President George W. Bush. Democrats also forced an unsuccessful filibuster vote on Alito, a move that Republicans are not forcing on Sotomayor.
Some Republican strategists warn that the tone of the debate and statements of personal praise for Sotomayor's hardscrabble upbringing in the Bronx will fall short with Latino voters, because the final GOP vote will appear so lopsided against her.
"Latinos see her as a symbol of Hispanic leadership in America," said Lionel Sosa, a Latino political strategist who has advised several presidential candidates on Hispanic outreach, including McCain. "If they vote against Sotomayor, it's a vote against Hispanic leadership in America. That's the way Latino voters will see it."
Others disagreed, saying there was little to be gained by trying to appease Latinos by voting simply based on ethnicity. "It is insulting that Hispanics would believe a Hispanic nominee must be approved solely because of her ethnicity and not on the merits of her achievements, impartiality and judicial philosophy," said Alex Castellanos, a Cuban American strategist who advises the Republican National Committee.
Some Republicans said there is no monolithic Latino vote, with only a few states in which Latinos make up a critical segment of ballots.
In a recent NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll, 58 percent of Hispanics favored Sotomayor's confirmation, 11 percent opposed her, and about 30 percent had no opinion. But the poll found continuing troubles for Republicans with Hispanics: Just 20 percent had favorable views of the Republican Party, while 41 percent had unfavorable views.
Several Republicans who will face GOP primary voters next year have opposed Sotomayor, including some from Sun Belt states with sizable Hispanic populations. McCain and Sen. Robert F. Bennett (Utah), both facing conservative primary challengers, are opposing her. Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, who is considered insufficiently conservative by some Sunshine State Republicans, announced he would oppose her nomination. Crist is running against former Florida House speaker Marco Rubio, who is Cuban American and also opposes Sotomayor, for the GOP nomination to succeed outgoing Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.).
Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R), running in a primary for the Texas governor's race, also announced her opposition to Sotomayor.
Where Republican primaries are already settled or the field is clear, conservatives have come out in support. Former representative Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), running unopposed for the nomination to challenge Sen. Arlen Specter (D), announced he would support Sotomayor if he were in the Senate.
Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.), one of the six Republicans who has said he will support Sotomayor, said the Supreme Court confirmation process had become akin to "Mideast politics," with the minority invariably opposed to the president's nominee as a way to appease its base.
"You're seeing what I'm afraid is the going to be the future. It's Mideast politics, and Mideast politics, when it comes to judging, will not serve the judiciary well in the long run," Graham said.
Polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.