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Gun Rights Advocates Hope to Flip Red-State Dems on Sotomayor

Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2009/07/lincoln-tester.jpgSens. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) and Jon Tester (D-Mont.), both red-state Democrats (WDCpix, senate.gov)

For Republicans and many movement conservatives, the key moment of the first day of Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor’s confirmation hearings was not the blistering opening statement of Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), the ranking member of the Judiciary Committee who bulldozed through the most controversial parts of her record. It was the jokey, resigned statement of Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.), who regretted that President Barack Obama had given the Senate a candidate who could not be stopped.

Elephant.jpg
Elephant.jpg

Image by: Matt Mahurin

“Unless you have a complete meltdown,” said Graham, “you’re going to get confirmed… I don’t think anybody here worked harder for Senator McCain than I did, but we lost, and President Obama won. And that ought to matter.”

Graham revealed something that Washington’s class of conservative judicial activists have frequently, reluctantly admitted — that Republicans have almost no chance of defeating the president’s highest-profile nominees unless they whittle down the Democratic majority in the Senate. Several conservative leaders have characterized the Sotomayor hearing as a “teachable moment,” a way to move the dials on hot-button issues, if not a way to defeat the nominee. This has been echoed, perhaps accidentally, by Republican senators. “I think that’s only fair to give her the hearing,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) after Monday’s session. “Otherwise, we wouldn’t need to be here for this week.”

But more quietly, some conservative leaders are working to convince their peers that Sotomayor could actually be defeated, or at least denied an up-or-down vote and forced to withdraw. One conservative judicial activist pointed to the lasting damage that the failed nomination of Harriet Miers did to George W. Bush, and suggested that defeating Sotomayor could knock down the president’s poll numbers and send vulnerable Democrats scrambling for cover. Activists have put together ambitious lists of Democratic senators whom, they believe, could be convinced that votes for Sotomayor would be votes for their own electoral defeats, as long as voters understand that the potential justice is a threat to gun rights.

The problem for the more ambitious opponents of Sotomayor is that their political leverage against Democrats is limited, differing from state to state, and in no case more powerful than the leverage exerted by Democrats. And political strategists in the states with targeted Democratic senators are skeptial that a “yes” vote on a Supreme Court nominee could become an election-swinging issue.

“I’d be stunned if this became an issue for [Sen.] Bob Casey [D-Penn.] or [Sen.] Arlen Specter [D-Penn.],” said Terry Madonna, a Pennsylvania political analyst who directs the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin and Marshall College. “I can almost predict, flatly, that it won’t.”

One key issue on which activists hope to pressure Democratic senators mirrors an issue that Republicans are beginning to focus on in the hearings. On July 7, the Committee for Justice put out a letter from “26 gun rights leaders,” highlighting Sotomayor’s decision in the 2004 case of United States v. Sanchez-Villar, which argued that “the right to possess a gun is clearly not a fundamental right.” demanding that senators vote no on Sotomayor. The letter came at the same time as a less strongly-worded letter from the National Rifle Association which withheld an immediate stance “out of respect for the confirmation process,” but the committee’s letter burrowed into electoral politics. Its signatories include NRA board members who live in Ohio, Montana, and Pennsylvania. “Notably,” writes Committee for Justice president Curt Levey in a memo that accompanies the letter, “many of the signers represent red and purple states with one or more Democratic senators.”

But the possible targets for pressure on this issue — whether or not a vote for Sotomayor is a vote against the Second Amendment — are extremely limited. Of Pennsylvania’s two senators, both of them known to occasionally buck their party on judicial issues, only Specter is up for re-election in 2010, and Madonna notes that “his biggest challenge is coming from the left, from Rep. Joe Sestak’s (D-Penn.) primary run.” Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) and Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mon.) are not up for re-election until 2012, Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) is not up until 2014. Of the few potentially vulnerable senators up in 2010, Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) has yet to draw a serious Republican challenger, nor has Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.).

“There might be some backlash if the Second Amendment becomes a huge part of the hearings,” said Will Deschamps, the chairman of the Montana Republican Party, who doubted that Tester or Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mon.) would have to worry about their support for Sotomayor. “In three years, it’ll be old business. They’re smart enough to know that everybody will have forgotten by 2012 or 2014.”

While Levey informed signatories of the anti-Sotomayor letter that Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) could be targeted because of her “proud trumpeting” of a 100 percent NRA voting record, Tom King, the president of the New York State Rifle and Pistol Association, was skeptical about the chance that Gillbrand would buck her party on a key vote while facing a primary challenge from Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.).

“Gillibrand has always voted for [gun owners] in the past, and she’s making noise that she won’t do that,” said King, who estimated that only about a quarter of his organization’s 40,000 members had been writing or calling about Sotomayor. “We’re taking a wait and see attitude.” He acknowledged that defeating a Democratic senator in New York next year was unlikely, but pointed to Gillibrand’s ability to win a House seat in conservative upstate as proof that “we don’t go 100 percent with the parties.”

he only Democratic senator who holds a seat in a solidly “red” state, and who is up for re-election in 2010, is Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.). But Republican strategists saw no early sign of the confirmation battle playing out, or the gun issue rising to as a theme in the hearings, in a way that would make Lincoln worry. “It hasn’t been heavily mailed or worked at the grassroots level,” said Bill Vickery, a Little Rock-based Republican consultant who would “enjoy working for whoever the Republican nominee is” in 2010. “I think there are five or six other issues that will hurt Lincoln before this does. Like Lindsay Graham said, unless there’s some sort of meltdown, I think it stays down there.”

While other activists were more optimistic about the chances of making the gun issue into a problem for Democrats, most agreed that no serious pressure would come until and unless the National Rifle Association scored the vote. On Monday, the NRA did not comment on its plans or add to the text of its measured July 7 letter. Ken Blackwell, an Ohio Republican and NRA board member who signed the Committee for Justice’s letter, suggested that the organization was taking “the measured, responsible view” of the situation and waiting for the hearings to conclude before taking more steps.

“It’s up to us in the grassroots to make the case,” said Blackwell. “It’s up to us whether or not voters remember which way senators voted on this nomination in three or five years. The fingerprints need to stay on the knife.”

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