Republicans are divided over how aggressively to go after federal judge Sonia Sotomayor, a family feud about the tone of the coming debate over confirming the Supreme Court’s first Hispanic.
A growing chorus of GOP lawmakers and conservative strategists are voicing concern over the strident rhetoric some prominent Republicans have used to describe Sotomayor, and some are denouncing right-wing groups for swiftly launching negative advertisements against her.
The spat reflects a vexing question facing the GOP as it confronts President Barack Obama’s first high court nominee: They can’t defeat Sotomayor or block a final vote to seat her on the court, so what should they do instead?
The answer, according to high-profile Republicans like radio host Rush Limbaugh and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia is to harshly criticize Sotomayor. They both branded the federal judge — the daughter of Puerto Rican parents who was born and raised in New York — a "racist" this week for past remarks about how her ethnicity affected her judging. On Friday, Limbaugh likened picking Sotomayor to nominating former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke for the job.
But other leading Republicans, cognizant of the political risks for their party of opposing the first Hispanic woman to be named to the court, are struggling to change the terms of the debate. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, the head of his party’s Senate campaign committee, sharply criticized Limbaugh and Gingrich for their words.
"I think it’s terrible. This is not the kind of tone that any of us want to set when it comes to performing our constitutional responsibilities of advise and consent," Cornyn told NPR. "Neither one of these men are elected Republican officials. I just don’t think it’s appropriate. I certainly don’t endorse it. I think it’s wrong."
Writing in the Wall Street Journal, GOP strategist Peggy Noonan urged her party to "play grown-up," and dismissed as "idiots" conservatives who were out to attack or brand Sotomayor.
The criticism comes as some conservatives are quietly expressing dismay at the tactics of outside interest groups that are engaged in an intense public-relations offensive against Sotomayor that includes a daily drumbeat of negative statements about her.
A leading organization on the right, the Judicial Confirmation Network, launched an advertising campaign the day Obama named Sotomayor that bashes her record and concludes that "America deserves better."
"These things just taint the debate because it causes (people) to become callous toward our message. It becomes a ‘cry wolf’ situation," said Manuel Miranda, chairman of the Third Branch Conference, a conservative group, and a former senior Senate GOP aide. "They’re just out to bash the nominee. This isn’t about bashing the nominee; it’s about engaging on issues."
Miranda said he is concerned that Senate leaders — knowing that they don’t have the votes to beat Sotomayor and worried about the political consequences of a prolonged effort to do so — will pass up the opportunity to have a drawn-out debate about her record and the two parties’ dueling philosophies about the role of a judge.
"These fissures are very real, and they’re not settled," Miranda said. "I am afraid that (Senate Republicans) will miss an opportunity."
GOP leaders are pushing back against that notion. They circulated a document late Friday titled "It’s Going To Take Time," filled with quotes from senior Democrats who said following the selections of the last two Supreme Court justices to be confirmed, GOP nominees John Roberts and Samuel Alito, that the Senate should take its time considering the nominations.
Republicans face competing pressures in the debate over Sotomayor and the Supreme Court. Opposing her nomination is important to their core supporters, comprised in large part of social conservatives who regard the courts as a key battleground. But the party also is struggling to reach beyond that base and draw more diversity — a goal that could be frustrated with a bitterly partisan fight, especially given Sotomayor’s background.
Gary Marx, the executive director of the Judicial Confirmation Network, said the divisions were more about style and tone than substance. He said conservatives agree that Sotomayor is a "judicial activist" — someone who puts her own views above the law — regardless of how they express themselves.
"Our ads are focused on highlighting her published writing and her own words, making sure those are raised because we feel they speak to the issue of judicial activism," Marx said. "We can have a healthy debate when we focus on her own writings, her published writings and spoken words."
Sotomayor’s nomination has caused some angst on the left as well, although Democrats have remained united in public in support of her selection. Still, pro-abortion rights groups are withholding their endorsements until they can learn more about her stance on Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that established a woman’s right to end a pregnancy.
The White House fielded calls this week from some concerned groups. Few of the organizations have taken much solace from Sotomayor’s past rulings — which have not touched on the issues underlying Roe — or from the White House’s claim that neither Obama nor any other official ascertained her views on it.