Sotomayor, Senator Specter, and the GOP Base

I typically receive four morning emails with political news and analysis.   There’s usually something smart or helpful in each.   Today’s First Read email from the smart people (which doesn’t mean they are always right, but they are usually interesting) in NBC’s Political shop (led by the now famous Chuck Todd — I knew him back when) included the following line on the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings:

Watching the Senate Republicans’ opening statements yesterday (save for Lindsey Graham’s), it seemed clear that — at least politically — they realize there’s a bigger penalty being FOR Sotomayor than being AGAINST her. This is a non-election year, and any Republican seen defending her at this point might find themselves under siege from conservatives on talk radio or on TV. Of course, Democrats wonder if the Senate Republicans will go too far in their questioning (see Sessions vs. Sotomayor today), and whether that could cause pain at the ballot box next year. One Democrat even thinks the phrase, “and even voted against Justice Sotomayor” could be an effective TV or radio ad tagline. We’ll see. Bottom line: We’re watching Senate Republicans having to play base politics over Sotomayor in the same way Democrats felt pressure to do the same with Roberts and Alito.

While I might quibble with some of the language (such as “having to play base politics”), theire analysis is essentially correct.  They even show the appropriate amount of skepticism about the Democrat believing that “and even voted against Justice Sotomayor” could be effective in an ad.   That is a Democrat spending too much time inside the Beltway, and not enough time realizing that the Supreme Court Justice with the highest unaided name ID is Clarence Thomas, with 14% able to name him off the top of their head.  Only 46% of 2008 general election voters could name a Supreme Court Justice (I could name seven!).   Indeed, I would urge consultants on the Dem side to plan on spending massive budget amounts on this issue!

Republicans would pay a much higher price among conservatives for voting for Sonia Sotomayor than they will among swing voters by voting against her.  This is NOT a plea to vote against her — just a simple analysis.  Having tested her image on some primary surveys, her negatives among GOP primary voters approach 50%, while her favorables don’t top 20%.

Regular readers of the blog know that I focus on the need for the GOP to do much better with swing voters — I often urge candidates to focus on Independents.  However, on this issue, swing voters aren’t likely to remember this issue after the hoopla dies down, much less in the voting booth.

The Sotomayor vote for Republican Senators is the equivalent of the pro-stimulus package vote that forced Arlen Specter from the GOP.  Having done polling for the Senator for more than one dozen years (including his tight 2004 primary election), I can vouchsafe that he never was fully trusted by the GOP base.  However, they generally put up with him.  However, the economic stimulus package yes vote ended whatever goodwill was left.   Specter was left in an untenable position with the base and was left with no choice but to switch parties in order to have a chance to win election to a Pennsylvania record sixth term (his five terms already is a record — you may not agree with Senator Specter, but he is a very able politician in a purple state that is much more blue than red).

Most GOP Senators have not strained their relations with their base like Specter had already done prior to the stimulus vote.  However, given Sotomayor’s numbers with primary voting Republicans, the potential for harm by voting for her is greater than any political damage a thoughtful, well-reasoned, non-personal no vote will muster.

Besides, given then-Senator Barack Obama’s votes against Justices Roberts and Alito, and the non-controversy that has stirred in the press, it would be very hypocritical of the media and the Democrats to make a fuss over Republicans voting no based on concerns over Sotomayor’s liberal bias.  The Democrats have made ideology a yardstick for measuring Supreme Court nominees, and the GOP base knows it.

Public Opinion Strategies