Monday, June 01, 2009

Why is John Cornyn Being So Nice to Sonia Sotomayor???

To continue our look into the political, geographic, and demographic ramifications of the nomination of Judge Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court, I thought I'd speculate a bit on how various Senate Republicans might approach the confirmation process. Over the past week the lines seem to have been drawn around the question of whether biography should affect one's view of the law. As we approach the confirmation hearings and vote, we'll move (thankfully) from the stage that we're currently in--all sorts of "legal analysts," interest group representatives, and other flaks pontificating their positions and advancing their agendas--to one in which those actually voting on her nomination (i.e. Senators) are at the forefront. Unlike the current crop of voices, Senators are actually accountable to voters. Thus, they tend to approach these decisions with a bit more tact and caution.

To get a sense of the calculations that some Republican Senators might be going through, I thought I'd look at the size of the Hispanic populations in their relative states. Opposing the first Hispanic nominee to the Supreme Court leaves one open to retribution from Hispanic constituents. If it comprises a sizable component of the electorate, an energized Hispanic bloc bent on retribution could prove decisive in defeating the Senator who votes "No." Given the degree to which Hispanics moved to the Democratic ticket last fall, and given the rate of growth in the Hispanic population, a number of GOP Senators are going to spend the next few months walking a delicate tight rope.

I've created the following chart that looks at each of the 40 current GOP Senate seats. Note that because we're focusing on the electoral dimension of the confirmation vote I haven't included the retiring Senators but have listed their seats as open. I've coded, first, when that seat is up for re-election. We might expect those Senators with re-election races next year to perhaps be most fearful of the charge of being anti-Hispanic. I've next coded the percentage of their state that is Hispanic, based on numbers from the Pew Hispanic Center. Obviously, those states with a larger Hispanic vote present "No" voting Senators with a greater risk. Next I've coded the margin of victory in each Senator's last election. Those GOP senators who had extremely large margins of victories might have little to fear (especially if they come from states w/a small Hispanic population) in voting against Sotomayor compared to those who had close races. Next I identify the seven current Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee. These members will be in the spotlight as they lead the questioning of the nominee and cast the initial votes on her. Committee members also tend to "carry the water" for the party at large during the nomination process so we will see the emerging GOP strategy on Sotomayor implemented by this group. Finally, I've indicated how Senators in office at the time voted on Sotomayor's elevation to the U.S. Court of Appeals in 1998. It will be interesting to see whether those who supported her in 1998 now vote against her, or vice versa,--and how they justify such a vote.

A couple of interesting things to note. As I noted in the title of this post, Texas Senator John Cornyn has been conspicous in his even-handedness toward the Sotomayor nomination. One reason for this, perhaps, is the demographic reality that is modern Texas. Percentage wise, the Lone Star State has the largest Hispanic population in the country. While Cornyn was just re-elected last fall with a relatively healthy margin, any future ambitions that he may have in the state (or nation-wide) are going to be affected by his standing among Hispanic voters. The fact that he also sits on the Judiciary Committee would seem to be further evidence of why he is taking such a moderate tack at this point. Finally I'd note that Cornyn is currently the head of the Republican Senatorial Committee and thus in charge of the effort to recruit and fund GOP Senate candidates this cycle. Unlike other Senators he needs to be especially attuned to the national mood and electorate. His recent comments that the GOP needs to become a "national" party again show that he is at least aware of how much work needs to be done among certain groups (including Hispanics) of the electorate. Cornyn's colleague from Texas, Kay Bailey Hutchison, is also worth watching. While her most recent victory was double that of Cornyn's, she has perhaps a more difficult decision to make. First, Hutchison is widely expected to declare herself a candidate for the upcoming governor's race in which she will challenge incumbent GOP Governor Rick Perry in what will no doubt be a blockbuster primary fight. Thus, each decision she makes will be parsed for its electoral ramifications. Complicating this is the fact that she voted against Sotomayor in 1998. The result is some pretty complicated political jujitsu---how do you 1) win a Republican primary in which the incentive is to move right (anti-Sotomayor) yet leave yourself in a position to 2) win the general election where over 1/3 of the electorate is Hispanic???

A similar dynamic exists further west in Arizona. Here, John McCain is on the ballot next year. While he's had relatively little difficulty in his recent re-elections, the trendlines have not been favorable for the GOP in Arizona over the past few cycles. Democrats have gained 3 House seats since 2006 and many believe that it will go Democratic in the next presidential race. With 30% of the population being Hispanic, one can see why these trends have emerged. One can envision a scenario in which McCain sides with the Sotomayor pick in the end. It fits his image of an "independent" or "maverick" while also, I'd suggest, being an easy vote. He will have to explain why he changed his mind after his 1998 vote against Sotomayor, though. Because McCain doesn't sit on Judiciary, the fate of the Sotomayor nomination will probably be well known by the time it gets to the Senate floor. If it appears that Sotomayor is going to be easily confirmed, McCain can vote "Yes"without worrying that his decision will change the outcome. He maintains good standing back home while not incurring the wrath of his party--he wins on all counts. John Kyl, the other Arizona GOPer, is in a much more tricky spot. He faces the same treacherous demographics, yet 1) had a closer re-election last time; 2) sits on Judiciary (and will thus be forced to stake a position relatively early on); and 3) voted against Sotomayor in 1998.

Other Senators to watch??? I'd pick out Richard Burr from North Carolina. Electorally he's in a state that has been moving Democratic and has a Hispanic population that while not huge, can be decisive--see Nate Silver's discussion of the Hispanic vote in Obama's Tarheel State win. He's also been pulling some pretty underwhelming poll numbers for an incumbent. The fact that he's not on Judiciary and wasn't in the Senate in '98, and thus didn't vote on Sotomayor then, gives him a lot of room to maneuver now. He could vote "Yes" in the end too.

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