WASHINGTON — On the often-bumpy road to confirmation to the nation's highest court, Sonia Sotomayor has a crucial dynamic smoothing her path: ethnic politics.
Republicans, at sea as a party and having lost ground with Hispanic voters, the fastest-growing segment of the population, will have a hard time defeating the woman who would be the first Hispanic justice. And the inevitable partisan fights over Sotomayor's nomination hold heavy risks for a party striving to draw beyond its mostly white, Southern and conservative base.
Sotomayor will field heavy criticism from right-wing groups and some conservative GOP senators, but strategists in both parties agree that Republicans will have to tread carefully — and won't likely be able to stop her.
What will be the difference
Republicans are "going to have to make a judgment based on what they think her record is, but how they talk about it and how they discuss it is going to be the difference between them alienating Hispanics or sounding reasonable to Hispanics," said Frank Guerra, a Texas-based GOP strategist who handled outreach for Hispanic voters for former President George W. Bush's presidential campaigns.
"If they say 'no' but they handle it properly, based on record, then I think they can manage that without too much damage, but if you make it personal and it feels as though it's something about her background, that could be very damaging," Guerra said. "They're going to have to handle it very deftly."
Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York was more blunt in his political assessment for Republicans: "They oppose her at their peril."
Sotomayor starts out with a powerful numerical advantage. Democrats are on the brink of having 60 votes in the Senate — the number it takes to break a filibuster that could block the nomination. What's more, seven Republican senators backed Sotomayor's 1998 nomination to the appeals court covering New York, Vermont and Connecticut.
Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, one of those seven, gushed about Sotomayor in a statement Tuesday, saying hers was "an historic selection" and calling her "a well-qualified woman." She also noted that Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff, had personally called her early in the day to tip her off about the pick — an indication that the push to lock in votes for Sotomayor from Republican senators is already well under way.
Hispanic groups say that Republicans, particularly those from Southern and Western states with large and growing Hispanic populations, will be hard-pressed to oppose Sotomayor given her bipartisan appeal — she was first nominated for a federal court post by President George H.W. Bush — and strong qualifications.
A case in point: Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, the Texas Republican who is running to be governor in a heavily Hispanic state. The League of United Latin American Citizens, which honored Hutchison at its February gala, plans to lobby her in person to back Sotomayor and ask their members to urge her to do so, said Lizette Olmos, a spokeswoman.
Hutchison gave no hint Tuesday of her position on Sotomayor's nomination. As the Senate evaluates her, Hutchison said in a statement, "our chief concern must be her commitment to the rule of law. I look forward to a fair and open confirmation process as we work to ensure our next Supreme Court justice will defend and protect the Constitution through impartial judgment and judicial restraint."
Said Maria Cardona, a Democratic strategist who helped found Hispanics for a Fair Judiciary, a nonpartisan group: "Republicans are going to have to tread very, very carefully on this one. They have already alienated 70 percent of the Hispanic community in this country with the whole issue of immigration in 2006."
Lionel Sosa, another GOP strategist who advised President George W. Bush on Hispanic outreach, said: "Republicans would be idiots for opposing her. ... It would be one more nail in the Republican image coffin after all of that immigration rhetoric in the last presidential election."
Republican senators are saying little
While conservative groups were quick to criticize Sotomayor's record and past statements, few Republican senators had negative things to say about her.
Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, who as the senior Republican on the Judiciary Committee will have perhaps the highest-profile position from which to face off with Sotomayor — the New York-born child of Puerto Rican parents — said he would lead a "fair and thorough examination" of the nominee's record, speeches and writings. He warned that such a process could take time.
Other senior Republicans were quick to point out that they would not be a "rubber stamp" on President Barack Obama's choice.
Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., a leading conservative, was one Republican to publicly find fault with Sotomayor. "Some of her writings seem to raise serious questions about her approach to the Constitution and the role of the federal judiciary," DeMint said in a statement, "but I will withhold judgment about her nomination until she has the opportunity to fully present her views before the Senate."
The White House and its allies insist that Sotomayor was selected not for her background but for her excellent qualifications, declining to discuss the role that ethnic politics played.
A trump card
"I'm not going to get into the politics and the demographics of it," said Robert Gibbs, the White House spokesman. "The president picked the person he believed best suited for this job at this time."
While her ethnicity may not be Sotomayor's prime qualification for the Supreme Court, many strategists said it could prove to be a trump card.
"Our hopes and our aspirations are all tied up in this nominee, and the last thing (Republicans are) going to want to do is come and dash those hopes, especially without a good reason," said Brent Wilkes, the League of Latin American Citizens executive director.
If they do, Wilkes added, "it's going to have a big, huge backlash in the Hispanic population. We won't have to do anything; we'll just sit back and watch them destroy themselves, because it's really going to be that bad for them."