Cornyn On Sotomayor Hearings & Hispanic Votes: I'm Just Doing My Job

John Cornyn (R-TX) is one of the more interesting senators to watch during Sonia Sotomayor's confirmation hearings. As chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, who represents a state with a large Hispanic population, he's at the nexus of Republican political concerns over the Sotomayor proceedings. The party wants to compete for Hispanic votes, opposing the first Hispanic nominee may hurt them; at the same time, conservative groups want to make Sotomayor a rallying cry for the party's core conservative base. Cornyn has to win the votes, raise the money, and turn out the conservatives if he wants to win Senate campaigns in 2010.

He hasn't been as tough on Sotomayor as some of his Republican colleagues. Unlike Lindsey Graham (R-SC) yesterday, who repeatedly cut Sotomayor off and made insinuations about her judicial philosophy, Cornyn actually apologized for beginning to interrupt her today. He restricted his questions to "do you stand by your words?" and "can you explain what you meant?"--even if his questions covered the same material as his fellow partisans: the "wise Latina" quote, the New Haven firefighters case, whether judges change the law, abortion, etc.

A former Texas Supreme Court justice himself, Cornyn's most pointed criticism came over her ruling in the firefighters case.

After the hearing adjourned for lunch, a reporter asked Cornyn today about Hispanic votes, and whether he's getting any feedback from voters in his home state.

"I made the point all along that what every nominee deserves, and what this nominee has gotten, is our respect and a civil and dignified hearing," Cornyn responded.

"I beleive that [what] all of my constituents, whether they be Hispanic or otherwise" want him to do, Cornyn said, "is to do my job and to ask the questions that they might ask if they were in my shoes."

"I don't sense a negative or positive reaction--I think they just think I'm doing my job," Cornyn said.

So far, his strategy has been to raise questions in his opening remarks in an even, respectful tone, and then ask them directly of Sotomayor, without making too many judgments or asserting his opinions too much, except when it comes to the Ricci case. In that regard, he covers the same ground as his GOP colleagues and the conservative groups that oppose Sotomayor--and, to be sure, it's ground her backers are tired of hearing about--but he does so in a less forceful way than, say, Graham or Ranking Member Jeff Sessions (R-AL). Even if he suggests her past comments are troubling, he doesn't seem interested in making as many points of his own. His questions, largely, leave it up to her to present a response without getting badgered or painted into a corner before she speaks (Graham, especially, took to some crafty Socratic measures in questioning her, as a lawyer examining a witness).

As Cornyn said today, it's his job to thoroughly interrogate any Supreme Court nominee. Democrats would probably say he went further than that; conservatives likely prefer like the approach of Graham and Sessions. When compared to some of his colleagues, he appears to fall somewhere in the middle, playing it more or less straight, even as the topics he chooses fall squarely in line with the talking points against Sotomayor.

Given the dual political concerns involved, Cornyn's strategy and that of other GOP senators may or may not be fodder for discussion, debates, and political ads as the party competes for more Hispanic votes and seeks to preserve conservative energy between now and 2010. It's unlikely that Cornyn's quotes, in particular, will get lifted and used in Democratic ads; but the GOP's overall posture toward Sotomayor could figure prominently in the battle for Hispanic votes over the next few years--a battle that the national political press may not notice in its entirety, as some of the battleground includes Spanish-language radio ads aired in the nation's Southwestern states.