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Senate Republicans are in a quandary over the Supreme Court nomination of Sonia Sotomayor, aiming to raise pointed questions about her record without angering increasingly influential Hispanic voters.
Senator John Cornyn exemplifies the Republican dilemma over Sotomayor, who is the daughter of Puerto Rican parents who seems certain to be confirmed by the Democratic-led Senate as the first Hispanic Supreme Court justice.
One of seven Republicans on the 19-member Senate Judiciary Committee, Cornyn will take part in what he promises will be tough but civil questioning of Sotomayor, Democratic President Barack Obama’s choice, at her hearing starting on July 13.
Cornyn is also chairman of the Senate Republican campaign committee that is charged with expanding a shrinking party and winning seats in the overwhelmingly Democratic Senate.
Hispanics, the fastest-growing U.S. minority who make up 15 percent of the population, are a key to any expansion plans.
Hispanics voted by a two-to-one margin for Obama in last year’s presidential election. Many Hispanic voters greeted news of Sotomayor’s nomination with joy, and Republicans are aware that Hispanics will be watching carefully how she is handled.
"There are a lot of things going on, but I feel absolutely no pressure," Cornyn, a former Texas Supreme Court justice, said in an interview in his office. "There is a very consistent way to deal with this that is respectful of the nominee."
Sotomayor, a federal judge for the past 17 years, will be grilled over her comments asserting that a "wise Latina" woman judge might make better rulings than a white male — which drew accusations of racism from some conservative critics.
Cornyn said such attacks were "exactly the wrong way to start a civil process," but did say he felt it reasonable to ask if Sotomayor felt the law was color blind.
With Democrats holding 59 votes in the 99-member Senate and some Republicans praising Sotomayor, she seems certain to be confirmed to a lifetime appointment to the nine-member court. She would replace retiring Justice David Souter, who has often sided with liberals on the Supreme Court.
Jennifer Duffy, who tracks Senate races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, said Cornyn had to be careful.
"He is facing an internal battle for the heart and soul of the Republican Party between those for ideological purism and those pushing for a bigger tent," Duffy said.
In his campaign role, Cornyn is expected to rally conservatives — and conservative cash — to help win as many Senate races as possible in the 2010 congressional elections.
The Republican Party has been beaten decisively by Democrats in the last two elections, and party leaders would like to draw in more minorities, particularly Hispanics, as well as women.
"Republicans have lost support in recent years among all demographic groups," said Nathan Gonzales of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report. "They have ground to make up."
In the 2008 election, just 31 percent of Hispanics and 43 percent of women voted for Republican presidential nominee John McCain, part of a broader shift toward Democrats that put Obama in office and left Democrats with expanded majorities in the Senate as well as the House of Representatives.
Next year, 37 of the 100 Senate seats will be up for election including 19 now held by Republicans, the other 18 by Democrats. Cornyn and other Republicans hope that by peeling away some of the Democratic seats, they can show that the party is a "big tent" with broad appeal.
"I’m optimistic about the opportunities," Cornyn said.
Both sides hope to use the spectacle of the Senate committee hearing to push agendas and raise campaign contributions for their causes.
Janet Murguia, president of the National Council of La Raza, the nation’s biggest Hispanic civil rights group, said the way Sotomayor is treated during her confirmation could have serious implications at the ballot box.
"Much hangs in the balance, including our votes," Murguia said.
Cornyn said he was unfazed by Democratic warnings about a possible fight over the Sotomayor nomination, which he said looked like little more than a fund-raising appeal.
"People are waiting to see the tone of the hearing," Cornyn said. "Republicans say we aren’t going to pre-confirm or pre-judge the nominee. That’s a sign of a fair process."