GOP should back off on Sotomayor

Message to GOP: On Sotomayor, give it up.

With Judge Sonia Sotomayor’s Senate confirmation hearings set to begin next week, Republicans are still peering under every pillow in Washington, seeking desperately to uncover controversial issues she has supported and stands she has taken to use against her during those hearings. Most of the media attention on Sotomayor’s record has been on her decision in a civil rights case the Supreme Court recently overturned.

The justices ruled in favor of white New Haven firefighters who lost promotions when the city threw out a test it used on which to base promotions. The test was thrown out because only one Hispanic and 19 whites (the plaintiffs in the case) scored well enough to merit promotions. No blacks did.

Sotomayor, as a member of a U.S. Court of Appeals panel, ruled the other way. But that ruling, controversial as it may have been a decade or more ago, has not stirred up a firestorm of criticism from white men who believe they’re being denied equality in promotions due to affirmative action. The potency of that issue has wilted over time.

Wily GOP strategists are realizing her position in that case is a nonstarter and are moving on, recognizing they stand to lose more than they may gain if they take on a well-liked Latina nominee—one who is politically moderate to boot.

In the 1990s, President George Bush made inroads into the Latino vote by backing a form of amnesty for illegal immigrants. Then last year, President Obama did a thorough job of wooing Hispanic voters back into the Democratic fold. When GOP leaders do the numbers, they realize they can ill afford to lose more Hispanics to the Democratic Party than they already have. They are finally realizing that attacking Sotomayor, especially on her ruling in a race case, will cost additional Hispanic support in the next election.

Other GOP senators have faulted Sotomayor for her stance on gun rights—she supports certain restrictions on gun ownership and has stated that the Second Amendment bars the federal government from passing gun control legislation but not the states. With many Democrats having caved on gun control, the president included, that, too, is not the hot button issue it was several elections ago.

In addition, while Sotomayor was not exactly a household name before Obama nominated her to the Supreme Court, the more Americans learn about her, the more they seem to like her. A McClatchy Newspapers poll released last month questioned voters on their feeling about Sotomayor and the GOP effort to block her nomination. While 55 percent remained unsure of their feelings toward Sotomayor as a nominee (probably because they didn’t know who she was or weren’t closely following her judicial record) 37 percent said they would feel "less favorable" toward Republican senators if they "overwhelmingly oppose" the president’s Supreme Court pick.

As I’ve mentioned, much has been written and said about Sotomayor’s support among Hispanics. Less has been written and said about an even larger, more important group of voters who could also see an attack on Sotomayor as an attack on themselves. Census data reveal women represent 50.7 percent of the U.S. population. Hispanics comprise one in six Americans or just fewer than 47 million, versus more than 150 million women.

Not only will Sotomayor be the first Hispanic on the Supreme Court, if she is confirmed. She will also be the second woman, replacing retired Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, whose seat former President Bush filled with a man. She would be joining Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg who was appointed after Justice O’Connor, but who has remained on the bench and been quite vocal about her displeasure being the only female justice. If Republicans wage war on Sotomayor’s nomination, they reinforce their base — white males and Christian Evangelicals who tend to be quite conservative politically. But they lose an opportunity to open the tent and lure in more voters whose support they sorely need.

(Bonnie Erbe is a TV host and columnist. E-mail bonnieerbe(at)