One thing that has gone unremarked upon in the continuing story of Latino disdain for the Republican Party—and its desperate attempt at damage control—is the degree to which Sonia Sotomayor’s nomination to the Supreme Court was a pivotal event for the GOP’s relationship to the Latino community.
More than almost anything else, her nomination was defined by the viciousness of her opponents. Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions, for example, declared that she was unfit for the Court because of her service in an “extremist” organization, the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, a well-regarded nonprofit group. Former Bush advisor Karl Rove attacked her record and qualifications, while conservative writers like The National Review's Mark Hemingway [see correction below] disparaged her as “dumb and obnoxious.” If you’ve forgotten—it’s been three years, after all—you can watch this clip from Media Matters for a taste of the abuse Sotomayor received from the Right:
According to Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, and a whole host of others, Sonia Sotomayor—described as “frighteningly smart by her colleagues—was little more than a racist, unqualified lout who was hired on the basis of her race and gender—an affirmative action hire, in other words. Even now, Republicans use Sotomayor as the basis for attacks. In an ad he ran against Rick Santorum, Mitt Romney cited the former Pennsylvania senator’s vote for the Supreme Court justice as a detriment.
There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that Latino voters, despite their diverse backgrounds, act with a sense of linked fate—they reward politicians that support the broad interests of Latino voters, and oppose those that don’t. The symbolism that came with the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court was a powerful force, and Republicans intentionally positioned themselves against it. In his response to Mitt Romney’s anti-Sotomayor ad, Angelo Falcon—president of the National Institute for Latino Policy—said it best:
“This unprovoked attack is another example of how Romney and the Republican Party are pushing the Latino vote to Obama…They forget that Judge Sotomayor is an icon for the Latino community. It’s like attacking Martin Luther King or George Washington, for blacks and whites.”
It’s obvious that Barack Obama is held in high esteem by African Americans, but it’s wrong to take that as endorsement of his administration or his policies. Rather, for a lot of black people, Obama—by definition, almost—represents the best of the black community. He is what countless African Americans aspire to see in themselves and their children. When we look at pictures like this one, we see some of ourselves, and that inspires a powerful sense of pride. For that reason, attacks on his intelligence and qualifications are extremely wearying—if Barack Obama isn’t good enough for those who doubt the ability of black people, who is?
I think there’s something similar happened with Sotomayor and the Latino community. If the best of the best—Princeton grad, federal judge—isn’t good enough for those hostile to Latino immigrants, then what is? It’s not hard to see how this would inspire deep anger toward the Republican Party and its supporters.
In other words, for as much as we focus on anti-immigration rhetoric as the reason for Latino disenchantment with the GOP, it might be time to consider the Sotomayor nomination as a key causal factor that calcified Latinos against the Republican Party. It’s one thing for someone to oppose your policies, it’s something else for them to oppose your heroes.
Update: On Twitter, Mark Hemingway points out that he was summarizing the views of a liberal writer, Jeffrey Rosen, on Sotomayor. That's correct, and it should be said that Rosen was one of Sotomayor's harshest critics, originally pushed the notion that she was unfit for the Court. Still, the larger point stands; Democratic Party as an institution was firmly behind Sotomayor, while the GOP was mostly committed to a campaign of disparagement.