By Aaron Blake - 07/14/09 06:48 PM EDT
Interviews with a dozen Republicans running for Senate seats across the country failed to find one candidate who was willing to offer a clear position, despite the two months of public debate since President Obama picked Sotomayor for the high court.
He’s challenging Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah) in the ultra-conservative process that is Utah’s GOP nominating convention. Bennett voted for Sotomayor’s nomination to the circuit court a decade ago, so Shurtleff would seem to have an ready-made opportunity to throw some red meat to the right wing.
Yet the attorney general isn’t biting just yet. He’s taking his time, offering praise for Sotomayor’s background and remaining skeptical but open-minded.
“Our courts ought to somewhat reflect the population, but you have to understand her judicial philosophy,” Shurtleff said. “I would have a huge concern about her judicial temperament.”
To an extent, Republicans in the Senate and those running for the upper chamber have to take a cautious approach. Sotomayor is the first Hispanic nominee to the Supreme Court, and candidates don’t want to alienate the fastest-growing segment of the population.
Sotomayor finished the second day of her confirmation hearings on Tuesday and is expected to sail through the process. Some estimate as much as half the Senate Republican Conference could support her.
Other Republicans running for the Senate are taking a similar stance to that of Shurtleff, regardless of whether they’re running in states leaning Republican or Democrat.
Former Rep. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) has to tack more toward the middle to win Pennsylvania, a state easily carried by President Obama last year.
Toomey began the race as the very conservative primary challenger to Sen. Arlen Specter, and he recently led the very conservative Club for Growth. But he has become the GOP standard-bearer since Specter switched parties, and he has used Sotomayor’s nomination to reflect his moderation.
“I think I ought to read what she actually has to say before forming an opinion,” said Toomey, who was endorsed by the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) on Tuesday.
While Toomey has been measured in his assessment, others have hinted that they would oppose Sotomayor.
Former Florida state House Speaker Marco Rubio is looking to win with the conservative base in his Senate primary against centrist Gov. Charlie Crist. But Rubio is also withholding judgment, for now.
He suggested that Republican senators might not be taking as skeptical an approach as they should, because they assume that Sotomayor will be confirmed.
“I’m just concerned in general that there’s this notion permeating Washington that her nomination is a done deal,” Rubio said.
Rep. Todd Tiahrt (R) is battling Rep. Jerry Moran (R) in a Kansas Senate race that could be the biggest battle for conservative voters in the country.
“Based on what I’ve read so far, I don’t think she should be confirmed,” said Tiahrt, whose opponent has also expressed reservations. But Tiahrt added that “there is a possibility that she could overcome that through testimony.”
Former Rep. Rob Simmons (R-Conn.) is similarly skeptical. He emphasized that Sotomayor deserves a fair hearing but said he is concerned about her ruling in the case of the New Haven, Conn., firefighters who were denied promotions because few minorities passed the promotional exam. Sotomayor affirmed the ruling in the circuit court but was recently overturned by the Supreme Court. The case has been front and center in the GOP’s early questioning.
“I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt, but I am not an enthusiastic supporter,” Simmons said. “I’m from Connecticut, so I tend to judge a person on how they might have interacted with the people of my state. … When I look at the New Haven firefighter case, I think her involvement was weak.”
Simmons had a centrist record in the House but faces a tough GOP primary for the nomination to face Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), so the pressure could be on him to go right.
Yet one of his opponents, state Sen. Sam Caligiuri, is also being cautious, even openly talking about supporting her.
“As long as I were convinced that Judge Sotomayor respected the letter and intent of the Constitution and wouldn’t be unreasonably expansive in her reading of the Constitution, then she’s someone I’d be happy to support,” Caligiuri said.
Rep. Roy Blunt’s (R-Mo.) campaign said he would wait for the hearings to play out, while former Rep. Rob Portman’s (R-Ohio) campaign declined to comment Tuesday. Both are running in top open-seat races and face modest primary challengers.