WASHINGTON — Conservatives are mobilizing to use the Senate's likely confirmation of Sonia Sotomayor as the first Hispanic justice on the U.S. Supreme Court against vulnerable Democrats in next year's elections.
The Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday voted overwhelmingly to back Sotomayor's nomination, 13-6, with one Republican, South Carolina's Lindsey Graham, voting for the 55-year-old federal appellate judge. The full Senate will probably debate, vote and confirm her on a largely party-line vote next week.
Conservatives see the votes as important political ammunition in the 2010 campaign.
"Republicans can reap significant political benefits by voting against her confirmation and making her an issue in key races next year," conservative activist Ralph Reed told his supporters in a memo.
Voters will remember that "it is a gun vote, and this was not a judge vote. It was a racial quota vote. She is for quotas," added Grover Norquist, a leading conservative activist, in an interview.
The National Rifle Association, in a letter to Senate leaders, said Sotomayor's record demonstrates "a hostile view of the Second Amendment and the fundamental right of self-defense guaranteed under the U.S. Constitution." And, the letter said, the Sotomayor vote "will be considered in NRA's future candidate considerations."
The Republican Senate re-election chairman was somewhat more circumspect, but made it clear that the vote could be an opportunity.
"As people identify the Obama administration with more liberal policies, this nomination will help us a bit," said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, a committee member who plans to vote against Sotomayor.
Independent analysts dismissed the idea that conservatives have useful political fodder. "The main issue right now is jobs," said Merle Black, an expert on southern politics. "I don't know how many Americans are paying attention to the Sotomayor debate."
Democrats were also unbothered. "Before Republicans get too excited about using the nomination of Judge Sonia Sotomayor for political gain, they should remember that they have a Senate candidate in Florida who opposed the nation's first Hispanic Supreme Court nominee," said Eric Schultz, Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee communications director, referring to Florida Gov. Charlie Crist.
Thirty-six Senate seats are at stake next year, and 22 are now held by Democrats. Reed listed four likely Democratic targets: Arkansas' Blanche Lincoln, Colorado's Michael Bennet, North Dakota's Byron Dorgan and Pennsylvania's Arlen Specter.
One Republican who's planning to vote against Sotomayor, Sen. Jim Bunning of Kentucky, dropped his re-election bid Monday, citing fundraising difficulties.
"A vote for Sotomayor," Reed said, is a vote for "someone who has embraced racial preferences set asides," among other things.
Senators have not quite gone as far as the activists, but many Republicans have made it clear that they dislike what they call her "judicial activism."
Monday, Sen. Jeff Sessions, the committee's top Republican, joined that chorus, announcing his opposition in a column in USA Today.
"I don't believe that Judge Sotomayor has the deep-rooted convictions necessary to resist the siren call of judicial activism," he said. "She has evoked its mantra too often. As someone who cares deeply about our great heritage of law, I must withhold my consent."
Sessions listed three appellate rulings from Sotomayor that troubled him: A 2006 private property decision, the 2008 Ricci decision on affirmative action, and this year's decision giving states the power to ban firearms.
Ricci v. DeStefano has become a popular conservative rallying point. A three-judge U.S. Court of Appeals panel, which included Sotomayor, ruled last year without comment against New Haven, Conn., firefighter Frank Ricci, who's white, was denied a promotion and claimed reverse discrimination. The Supreme Court last month overturned the ruling by a 5-4 vote.
Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., a committee member and Sotomayor opponent, said the appellate decision in Ricci had "zero, and I do mean zero, analysis."
He recalled that at the judiciary committee hearing, "when I pressed Judge Sotomayor to identify those controlling Supreme Court and Second Circuit precedents that allegedly dictated the outcome in Ricci, she dissembled and ran out the clock. Her 'answers' answered nothing and, in my opinion . . . "
Many Republicans also are upset about her rulings on the right to bear arms.
They were particularly concerned about Maloney v. Rice, when a three judge appellate panel, including Sotomayor, said in January that states could restrict weapons, and the Second Amendment doesn't restrict state actions.
Norquist said conservatives can paint Sotomayor as a dangerous liberal just like President Barack Obama.
"She tarnishes him a little bit," said Norquist, who is president of Americans for Tax Reform and a member of the NRA board of directors.
Not all Republicans agree. Graham, the only southern Republican to back Sotomayor so far, called her "well qualified."
"If the United States Senate tries to have a confirmation process where we explore another person's heart," he said, "I think we're going to chill out people wanting to become members of the judiciary."
Four other Republicans also have said they'd back Sotomayor — Indiana's Richard Lugar, Maine's Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins and Florida's Mel Martinez.
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