WASHINGTON — Conservative activists have been itching for a major Supreme Court fight for years. But Sonia Sotomayor, President Barack Obama's first nominee to the nation's highest court, might not be a fight they want.
At a time when beleaguered Republicans are struggling to expand their appeal beyond white men, aggressively challenging what could be the first Hispanic justice (and only the third woman) on the U.S. Supreme Court could further erode support among Hispanic voters, especially in political battlegrounds like Florida.
So on Tuesday while conservative groups quickly attacked Sotomayor as a dangerous judicial activist, bent on imposing liberal views from the bench, much of the Republican establishment moved cautiously.
"For today, we congratulate Judge Sotomayor on this accomplishment and look forward to the coming weeks as members of the United States Senate face the daunting task of carefully analyzing Judge Sotomayor's qualifications and experience as well as her extensive writings and opinions,'' said Florida Republican chairman Jim Greer.
Conservative activists, however, immediately seized on a statement Sotomayor made at a 2005 conference that the "court of appeals is where policy is made," and her ruling against a group of white New Haven firefighters in an affirmative action case.
"Judge Sotomayor will allow her feelings and personal politics to stand in the way of basic fairness," wrote Wendy Long, counsel to the Judicial Confirmation Network.
Activists also targeted this quote from 2001: "I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life."
"She's frightening. And she's racist,'' said Christian Coalition of Florida executive director Dennis Baxley, echoing a charge leveled by Rush Limbaugh and other conservatives Tuesday. "If I had said that as a white man, I would be hung out to dry."
Barring some damaging revelations, however, the Democrats' strong majority in the Senate will make her tough to beat. She appears a masterful political choice. Sotomayor, 54, can claim bipartisan support, having been nominated as U.S. District Court judge by former President George H.W. Bush. In 1997, the GOP-led Senate confirmed her promotion to the 2nd District Court of Appeals in New York, one of the nation's busiest, and she was backed by seven Republicans still serving.
She has extensive experience as a prosecutor, trial and appellate judge and corporate lawyer. She has a compelling life story, having been raised by a single mom in a Bronx public housing project. And, as the daughter of native Puerto Ricans, she would make history as the first Hispanic justice.
Barack Obama beat John McCain among Hispanic voters 67 percent to 31 percent in 2008, and Republicans are keenly aware that losing more support among this fast-growing population segment could doom them to minority status for years to come.
Just as the bitter debate over immigration reform turned off Hispanic voters, so could bruising attacks on Sotomayor. "This one is a no-brainer politically, and they have to be really careful with it," said Ron Bonjean, a top strategist to Republican leaders in the House and Senate.
Mel Martinez of Florida, the only Hispanic Republican in the Senate, in the past has criticized his colleagues for appearing unfriendly to Hispanics in the tone of their opposition to immigration reform, and he said Republicans must focus strictly on Sotomayor's qualifications and experience.
"I think we've got to make sure it's a fair process, and that it's a process that is handled with the kind of dignity that comes with the office," Martinez said.
He said senators of both parties should not "presume that she is qualified — although on paper she looks eminently qualified — or that she is unqualified based on one thing she said one day."
U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., said he's "been told she brings an open mind to each case" and that he looked forward to a "detailed review of her record during the confirmation process."
Gov. Charlie Crist, who's running to succeed Martinez, said only that he would review the nomination. His primary rival, former Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio, said he was "deeply concerned" about some of Sotomayor's comments.
"I hope that a serious examination of her record and beliefs will not be shelved or cast aside simply so Democrats can attempt to claim political credit for a 'historic' court nomination," Rubio said.
Washington has been girding for a Supreme Court battle since Justice David Souter announced his retirement May 1. Conservatives hold a narrow 5 to 4 advantage on the court, and replacing Souter with Sotomayor will do nothing to alter the math.
But Obama has spoken of his desire to choose a strong, articulate counter to the all-star slate of conservatives, such as Antonin Scalia.
Obama met Sotomayor for the first time Thursday afternoon, when they met privately for one hour. He had narrowed the list to four and decided on Sotomayor on Sunday. He wants her in place after Labor Day.
Adam C. Smith can be reached at [email protected]