Sotomayor’s Confirmation—What Her Victory May Cost the Republicans

Conservatives tried to convince the Senate, and the nation, that an impressive judge with an impeccable record was simply a product of affirmative action. It didn’t work.
By Peggy Simpson for the Women’s Media Center, reprinted with permission.

The confirmation of Sonia Sotomayor as the third woman and first Latina to sit on the Supreme Court never was a done-deal.

It might look like it from the 68 to 31 vote of approval in the Senate Thursday.
But there were bumps along the way, potential derailments that were dealt with and some bizarre resurrections by conservatives of Reagan-era complaints that white males were victims of affirmative action policies that benefit women and minorities.

Here’s what helped Sotomayor clinch the job:

  • impressive coalitions by liberal advocacy groups, including the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, with feminist and reproductive rights groups stifling initial qualms about their uncertainties about her views on abortion;
  • unwavering support from Team Obama, especially in the midst of early accusations by conservative activists that she was a racist or worse, when even some supporters were nervous about remarks she made in 2001 about the virtues of being a “wise Latina.” She never apologized or took back those thoughts but did acknowledge a “poor choice” of words;
  • most of all, her own steady performance before the cameras in hearings that had been expected to feature fireworks but instead bordered on boring. Boring was good, in this context. Behind the scenes, Sotomayor visited with an unprecedented number of senators and by all accounts was a charmer. She carried that civility and personal touch into the Senate hearings with gestures, smiles and mini-conversations with GOP senators she knew would oppose her.

It didn’t hurt that firebrand commentators such as Rush Limbaugh but also former House Speaker Newt Gingrich came out swinging, accusing her of racism. But Gingrich had second thoughts, remembering his national ambitions.

GOP former Representative Tom Tancredo of Colorado escalated the rhetoric and accused her of links to a “KKK” type of advocacy group—the National Council of La Raza, which has more than 300 nonprofit affiliates in 41 states and is recognized as a bipartisan force in national politics. Tancredo’s attack backfired but it brought the NCLR new donors and prompted 5,000 people to sign a petition urging Republican leaders to tamp down the incendiary words. (They didn’t step up to the plate and all Republicans invited to speak to the NCLR national convention this summer turned them down.)

The biggest bonus for Democrats was the spectacular flame out by two key conservative Republican leaders and defenders of family values who were silenced in the debate. They were enmeshed in their own sex scandals, including lying to their wives as well as the public about consorting with sweeties (in Argentina, in the case of the governor of South Carolina).

The Sotomayor-nomination era had many notable moments.

One of the more bizarre came when MSNBC’s new hotshot host Rachel Maddow invited her colleague, conservative columnist, Pat Buchanan, to elaborate on why he was pushing Republicans to work harder to mobilize white conservatives against Sotomayor. Republicans, he had written, “must expose Sotomayor as a political activist whose career bespeaks a lifelong resolve to discriminate against white males.”

After Buchanan insisted Sotomayor wasn’t qualified to be on the high court but was “an affirmative action appointment” by Obama, Maddow asked what he thought affirmative action was for. Buchanan said its goal was “to increase diversity by discriminating against white males.”

And how is it, Maddow asked, that 108 of the 110 Supreme Court justices in the history of this country have been white?

And then came this remarkable Buchanan answer:

“Well, I think white men were 100 percent of the people that wrote the Constitution, 100 percent of the people that signed the Declaration of Independence, 100 percent of people who died at Gettysburg and Vicksburg. Probably close to 100 percent of the people who died at Normandy….This has been a country built basically by white folks.”

Maddow disagreed, saying that affirmative action was recognition that “people were discriminated against for hundreds of years in this country….that you sort of gamed the system, unless you give other people a leg up.”

Buchanan went back to his argument that Sotomayor got ahead only because of affirmative action. When Maddow asked if her very high grades at Princeton also were due to affirmative action, Buchanan then took a swipe at the Ivy League schools, saying that “half the class graduates cum laude these days.”

For a brief time, Republicans thought they had found pay dirt in discovering that Sotomayor belonged to an all-woman private club in California. About 100 professional women belong to the Belizean Grove, a takeoff on the controversial Bohemian Grove male-only club. That didn’t really take off. And no one mentioned the all-male Augusta Country Club, either, which continues to sponsor national golf tournaments. Sotomayor resigned her membership anyway.

In the end, all Democrats (except for the ailing Senator Ted Kennedy) and nine of the 40 Republicans voted for Sotomayor. The GOP opponents included 12 who face re-election next year. Of the seven Republicans likely to retire, four voted to confirm her.

But the Republicans weren’t much swayed by the Hispanic vote: the five GOP senators in states where Latinos are 20 percent or more of the population all opposed Sotomayor, including Kay Bailey Hutchinson of Texas.

This dramatizes the Republican dilemma of a party where core conservatives control the party— and the primaries—and nearly all of them are white Anglos. President George W. Bush took 44 percent of the Hispanic vote in his first term, but by 2008, that had plummeted to 30 percent.
Even worse, recent polls say Hispanics “disfavor” the Republican Party by a 55 to 8 margin, according to Pew pollster Andrew Kohut.

So will a vote against Sotomayor matter? The Republican analysts said, mostly, not to worry. Voters have a short attention span, and a Supreme Court vote won’t be as important as the shape of the economy by the next election.

Don’t count on it, says Lisa Navarrete, vice president of the National Council of La Raza.

“Folks saying they don’t see the impact of this nomination on our community don’t see the unity this has brought,” she said. “There are a lot of differences between Puerto Ricans in New York and Cubans in Florida and other Hispanic groups. Everybody came together on this. It did matter. People understood the milestone that had been reached.”