The South Carolinian, who had hinted during Sotomayor's confirmation hearings that he might back the 55-year-old judge, said he would vote yes because "elections matter," and he believes she's a well-qualified jurist with a mainstream record that shows her "troubling" statements on race and gender don't drive her decisions on the bench.
"Her life story ... is something that every American should be proud of, and if her selection to the Supreme Court will inspire young women, particularly Latino women, to seek a career in the law, then that is a good thing — and I hope it will," Graham said.
Graham's announcement brought the total number of Republicans publicly backing Sotomayor to five, and underscored the divisions in GOP ranks over voting on Obama's first high court pick, who is virtually certain to be confirmed in early August.
The party's conservative leaders are lining up against Sotomayor, reflecting the bent of their core supporters, but several moderates — eager to appeal to a more diverse set of voters, including Hispanics — have said they'll vote yes.
Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona, the No. 2 Republican, announced just before Graham's speech that he would oppose Sotomayor, accusing her of dissembling and stalling instead of being straightforward with senators during her confirmation hearings.
"I remain unconvinced that Judge Sotomayor believes judges should set aside biases, including those based on race and gender, and render the law impartially and neutrally," Kyl said, echoing the comments of several other leading conservatives who have announced they'll oppose the judge.
Kyl was particularly harsh about Sotomayor's responses to questions regarding a ruling she joined last year dismissing the claims of white firefighters in New Haven, Conn., who alleged reverse discrimination when they were denied promotions.
"Her answers answered nothing," Kyl said. The ruling was overturned last month by the Supreme Court, and Republicans have spotlighted it in their criticism of Sotomayor.
Still, the GOP has little appetite for attempting to block or delay a final vote on Sotomayor's nomination, given the inevitability of her confirmation and the political dynamics at play. Democrats, who control 60 votes, back her solidly and GOP Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, Richard Lugar of Indiana, Mel Martinez of Florida and Olympia Snowe of Maine have said they'll also vote yes.
Democrats are capitalizing on the GOP's political dilemma. The party's Senate campaign committee on Wednesday bashed Florida Gov. Charlie Crist — running in a primary to replace Martinez — for announcing this week that he opposes Sotomayor.
"If Crist wins his Republican primary, Floridians won't forget his opposition to the nation's first Hispanic Supreme Court nominee," said Eric Schultz, the committee's spokesman.
Collins, Lugar and Snowe are among the current GOP senators who voted for Sotomayor in 1998 when she was confirmed for a seat on New York's 2nd Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals. The others were Thad Cochran of Mississippi and Bob Bennett of Utah — both of whom plan to oppose Sotomayor this time around — and Judd Gregg of New Hampshire and Orrin Hatch of Utah, neither of whom has said how they will vote.
Graham is generally conservative but has been known to flash a maverick streak similar to his mentor, Sen. John McCain of Arizona.
He said Wednesday that voting against Sotomayor would be "the path of least resistance for me" — both personally and politically.
But he said he didn't believe Sotomayor will be any more liberal than Justice David Souter, the justice she's in line to replace.
"On balance, I do believe that the court will not dramatically change in terms of ideology with her selection," Graham said. "On some issues, quite frankly, (she) may be more balanced in her approach."