Sonia Sotomayor and the politics of race

By choosing a Hispanic woman for SCOTUS, President Obama has presented the GOP with a difficult quandary.


Alex Koppelman
May 27, 2009 1:35AM (UTC)

Whether or not President Obama meant to do it -- the White House certainly isn't saying -- he certainly put the Republican Party in a hell of a spot by choosing Sonia Sotomayor as his nominee to replace Justice David Souter on the Supreme Court. Set aside her inspiring life story, forget whether her politics make her an easy target or a difficult one, don't worry about the paper trail of decisions she's already made. The fight over this nomination may ultimately center around Sotomayor's race, and if it does, the GOP is in trouble.

The Sotomayor nomination works for Obama on two levels: One, it helps him shore up the Hispanic vote, which was pivotal in his win last fall. Two, it puts the GOP in the position of risking further injury to its standing with that demographic.

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"The Republicans are going to have to be extremely careful," Simon Rosenberg, who's spent a long time analyzing the role of Hispanics in American politics as president of the New Democrat Network, told Salon. "After years of demonizing Hispanics, if they oppose her and it looks political, they're risking further injury with this fast-growing segment of the electorate... There's no road back for the Republican Party that doesn't have them repudiating what they've done on race over the last generation."

Conservatives are reading this writing on the wall, too. At the Corner, one of the National Review's blogs, Jonah Goldberg wrote:

[O]ne advantage for Obama in picking the most left-leaning Hispanic possible/confirmable is that it actually allows the Democrats to — once again — cast Republicans as anti-Hispanic. If Obama picked a centrist, opposition would have been principled, but pro-forma. By picking Sotomayor, conservatives will no doubt demand full-throated opposition, which plays perfectly to Obama's purposes (so long as he doesn't dump Sotomayor for some, any, reason). I don't think this was the key factor in his decision, but you can be sure the White House will love casting conservative opposition in those terms.

Goldberg's probably being too generous to his ideological allies. So far, they've done the White House's work for it. When former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee attacked Sotomayor, he got her name wrong and called her Maria. On his radio show Tuesday, Rush Limbaugh demonstrated just why conservative talk radio turned off Hispanic voters before the landmark midterm elections of 2006, which were disastrous for the GOP.

"Obama is the greatest living example of a reverse racist and now he's appointed one -- getting this, AP? -- Sonia Sotomayor to the U.S. Supreme Court," Limbaugh said. "She is an affirmative action case extraordinaire and she has put down white men in favor of Latina women."

If that's the argument that's going to be made against Sotomayor, it's hard to see many minority voters changing their view of Republicans. A woman who graduated at the top of her class at Princeton, served as a prosecutor and a trial judge at the federal level and was confirmed by the Senate to serve on a federal appeals court an affirmative action candidate? 

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If you haven't read it already, my Salon colleague Mike Madden has a great piece elsewhere on the site about how hard it will be for Republicans to mount an opposition to Sotomayor.


Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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