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Sotomayor nomination splits GOP

Rush Limbaugh called her a “reverse racist.” The conservative Judicial Confirmation Network said she carried a “personal political agenda” and should be blocked from the Supreme Court.

But beyond such heated criticism, commonplace in partisan court battles, the nomination Tuesday of Sonia Sotomayor to the high court brought a surprisingly muted response from the Republican senators who will actually vote on it.

The senators seemed to be taking their cues from quieter voices within the party who cautioned that opposing the country’s first Latino Supreme Court nominee would amount to political suicide.

Moreover, some party strategists are telling GOP senators that attacking Sotomayor would waste an opportunity for Republicans to appear welcoming to Latino voters, many of whom turned away from the party in recent years because of conservative support for tough immigration restrictions and GOP opposition to legalizing undocumented workers.

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“A lot of Republicans are worried that [fighting the Sotomayor nomination] could be the last straw when it comes to the party’s ability to reach the Hispanic community,” said Robert de Posada, a Latino GOP strategist who said he is advising Republican staff aides on the Senate Judiciary Committee. “Republicans are in a very awkward position.”

Lionel Sosa, a Texas-based Republican ad maker who designed Latino outreach for GOP presidents from Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush, said that opposing Sotomayor “would be one more nail in the Republicans’ image coffin in terms of Latino voters.”

“When you’re anti the first Latina on the Supreme Court, you’re anti-my-family. . . . I would take it that these people are anti-Latino,” Sosa added. “The worst thing the Republicans can do is oppose her.”

The Senate’s Republican leadership, aware of the potential pitfalls, began conferring Tuesday with several Latino strategists, seeking their assessment of conservative opposition.

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The GOP’s dilemma on Sotomayor is the latest example of the party’s internal struggle over how to reinvent itself at a time that its voter base is increasingly dominated by Southern, conservative white men.

Some moderates have argued that the party must work to recruit more minorities and broaden its ideological foundation. But many leading conservatives have rejected that and see the latest Supreme Court vacancy as a chance to beat the drum on social touchstones such as abortion, gay marriage and affirmative action -- while also revving up their fundraising machineries.

Only five years ago, President Bush won reelection by performing unusually well among Latinos for a Republican, winning more than 40%. Some Democrats were fretting over how they would respond if Bush were to nominate his longtime friend, Alberto R. Gonzales, who became attorney general shortly after the election, to be the Supreme Court’s first Latino justice.

But conservatives blocked Bush’s efforts to legalize millions of undocumented immigrants, and the harsh rhetoric of that debate sent Latino voters fleeing the party. Fewer than 1 in 3 Latinos voted for the GOP presidential nominee last year -- one reason that crucial states such as Florida, Colorado and Nevada fell into the Democratic column.

Democrats, seeking additional gains in Florida, Texas and Arizona, did not hesitate Tuesday to seize on the potential political benefits. The national party distributed an announcement in Spanish.

And President Obama, in his White House announcement and in a taped message that was e-mailed to voters, pointed to Sotomayor’s Puerto Rican roots.

He said that Sotomayor had shown that “it doesn’t matter where you come from, what you look like, or what challenges life throws your way -- no dream is beyond reach in the United States of America.”

Beyond that, the choice of Sotomayor seemed politically astute for a White House eager to avoid a drawn-out partisan fight. She was first appointed to the federal bench by a Republican, President George H.W. Bush, and has won Senate confirmation twice before -- with seven of the Senate’s current Republican members approving her promotion in 1998 to be an appellate judge.

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The dispute within the Republican Party over how to approach the nomination broke out almost instantly.

Conservative advocacy groups argued that the nomination could open an emotional battle over questions of race and affirmative action, citing a recent ruling by Sotomayor and two other judges on the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals against white firefighters claiming racial discrimination in hiring and promotions.

Limbaugh, the conservative radio commentator, sought to fan those flames, citing a 2001 Sotomayor quote in which she said that her experiences as a Latina might guide her to more thoughtful decisions than a white man who had not lived the same life. “If that’s not a racist statement, I don’t know what is. Reverse racist or whatever,” Limbaugh said.

But the words coming from GOP senators struck a sharp contrast.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), a Judiciary Committee member who also heads the GOP’s Senate campaign strategy, told reporters that Sotomayor offered a “compelling American success story and something that we can all admire and respect about our country.”

In interviews and printed statements, Cornyn and other Republican senators treaded carefully as they promised an aggressive -- but respectful -- confirmation process.

“Our job now is to find out the rest of the story when it comes to temperament and judicial philosophy,” Cornyn said.

“While I celebrate Sonia Sotomayor’s life story,” added Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), in a common refrain, “I am troubled by some of her statements. She deserves a fair and respectful hearing.”

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Some GOP strategists and officials said they thought a full-blown confirmation battle could also bolster Democratic efforts to paint Republicans as obstructionist -- the “party of no.”

By falling in line and voting for the first Latino justice, some Republicans said, the party could create opportunity from the Sotomayor nomination. Supporting her might allow the GOP to regain enough credibility with Latino voters to neutralize any political benefit to be gained by Obama.

Then, De Posada said, if Obama does not act this year on his campaign promise to pass a legalization program for millions of undocumented immigrants, Republicans could make the case to Latinos that the president failed to deliver on their main issues.

“They would have grounds to go to the Hispanic community and say, ‘Yes it’s great to have a Hispanic justice, but on the most important and immediate issue that you care about, you’re being ignored,’ ” De Posada said. “That’s an opening for Republicans.”

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peter.wallsten@latimes.com

richard.simon@latimes.com


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