6 GOP Senators To Vote In Favor Of Sotomayor

The U.S. Senate vote on the Supreme Court nomination of Judge Sonia Sotomayor may tell us more about the Republican party than it does about the nominee. Just six Republicans have so far announced their support for Sotomayor. The latest is Tennessee's Lamar Alexander.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

When a Senate committee approved the Supreme Court nomination of Sonia Sotomayor, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said yes. He said she was, quote, "Well qualified, of good character, and her record over a long period of time is within the mainstream." And Graham added that the naming of the first Hispanic to the court was, quote, "a big deal."

Senator Graham was a lonely Republican voice, the only member of his party on the committee to approve the nomination. He will remain lonely as the full Senate votes, since relatively few Republicans so far support the choice. Here's NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg.

NINA TOTENBERG: On paper, at least, Sotomayor is analogous to President Bush's first Supreme Court nominee, John Roberts. On the saleable legal credentials, lots of support from Democrats and Republicans alike in the legal and law enforcement communities, and a judicial record that's - with one or two exceptions - largely uncontroversial.

In 2005, half the Democrats, 22, voted for Roberts, freeing them up to vote against the second Bush nominee, Samuel Alito. But Sotomayor will be lucky to get even 10 Republican votes, with nearly half of those cast by retiring Senators.

The Senate Republican leadership has pushed hard to round up votes against her. One top aid to GOP leader Mitch McConnell confirmed that McConnell, at a meeting of conservative groups, asked the National Rifle Association about scoring the Sotomayor vote as a key vote hostile to gun rights. The aid conceded that in asking the question, McConnell was promoting an unusual step that the NRA then took.

Privately, though, many Republicans see major long-term risks in opposing Sotomayor. After all, Hispanics are the fastest growing group of voters in the country. In 2004, President Bush won five major swing states with large Latino populations. Last year, Barack Obama carried all but one, John McCain's home state of Arizona.

Frank Guerra was a consultant to President Bush on Hispanic outreach and has worked for other Republican candidates as well.

Mr. FRANK GUERRA (Consultant to President Bush on Hispanic Outreach): The reality is this: Unless Republican candidates start to capture more of the Hispanic vote, the party and those candidates are going to be in big trouble. The Republicans will forever be a minority party if they do not do something soon and do something important and do something meaningful to capture this Hispanic vote.

TOTENBERG: University of Washington Professor Luis Fraga, a specialist on Latino voting, cites California as Exhibit A of the danger for Republicans.

Professor LUIS FRAGA (University of Washington): The rise of the Democratic Party has very much been due to the way in which the Republican Party there moved further to the right and lost many moderate white voters and many Latino voters.

TOTENBERG: Emory University's Merrill Black agrees, but says Republicans are sort of stuck.

Professor MERRILL BLACK (Emory University): If they were to vote for her, that would immediately split their electoral coalitions. They'd lose a lot of their conservative white support. There'd be a lot of opposition within their own coalitions, and it's unclear how many Hispanic voters they would pick up as a result of that vote.

TOTENBERG: Indeed, Republicans are increasingly cowed by primary challengers. They saw Pennsylvania's Arlen Specter switch parties because he was sure to be beaten in the Republican primary. And lots of Republican stalwarts are either worried about future primary challenges or current ones, including Utah's Robert Bennett and Arizona's John McCain. Heaping fuel on that fire is cable TV, talk radio and the blogosphere. Here, for example, is conservative Pat Buchanan talking about Sotomayor on MSNBC.

Mr. PATRICK BUCHANAN (American Conservative Political Commentator): …against white males who are white working-class folks who are the ones discriminated against most today. And that woman…

TOTENBERG: Or here's Fox's Glenn Beck this week talking about President Obama.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Glenn Beck")

Mr. GLENN BECK (Host, "Glenn Beck"): This president, I think, has exposed himself as a guy, over and over and over again, who has a deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture. I don't know what it is.

TOTENBERG: Texas A&M political science Professor George Edwards says these voices count.

Professor GEORGE EDWARDS (Political Science, Texas A & M): They are a force which push Republican Senators to the right. And that's one of their goals, is to keep them, in their view, keep them honest, keep them very conservative.

TOTENBERG: That, he says, may keep Senate Republicans in office for now, but make things much harder for the party in the future.

Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

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