How to Get Republicans to Support Puerto Rican Statehood
On Wednesday Delaware Sen. Tom Carper introduced legislation that would make Washington D.C. the 51st state. No doubt, similar legislation for Puerto Rico is just around the corner. During the last campaign, Democrats increasingly called for both to become states and Republicans balked, describing the idea as nothing more than a ploy for Democrats to gain four more Senate seats.
Republican concerns were not unwarranted. The calls to add states was part of the left’s response to a number of things they have deemed to be unfair. One of those things is the undemocratic nature of the Senate which, according to the argument, by giving small states the same representation as big states, gives Republicans a permanent advantage in the upper chamber. Republicans have used this advantage over the past several years to confirm many new federal judges, including three Supreme Court nominees, including Amy Coney Barrett right before the election while also blocking Merrick Garland before the previous election, in a series of moves they have inaccurately referred to as court packing.
Given this alleged systemic flaw and amid alleged court packing, Democrats saw adding states as a reasonable response. The result has been to poison the well, convincing many conservatives and Republicans that statehood for Puerto Rico must be opposed, despite the party’s official platform favoring statehood. Before, the statehood debate centered on a rather wonky debate whether the island territory needed to get its fiscal house in order before statehood or whether the lack of statehood was a main driver of its fiscal issues.
By coupling it with D.C., which would be the first literal city-state, that votes nearly 90% Democratic, liberal and progressive activists turned the issue away from being one about principle and self-determination and into a sort of litmus test on their party’s leaders willingness to fight Republicans using blunt political force, which is why Mitch McConnell equated it to “full-bore socialism.”
To those in Puerto Rico who advocate statehood, this is a great tragedy, because unlike D.C., there is compelling evidence that the island could end up being a very purple state. Even if it was to be a blue state, there’s no guarantee it would stay that way. In 1959 it was Democrats who supported statehood for Alaska and Republicans who advocated for Hawaii. Now, six decades later those states’ partisans affiliations have flipped.
Getting 60 votes in a 50–50 Senate, is likely doable if proponents are willing to do the hard work and compromise. To take just three examples, both GOP senators from Florida support it and Mitt Romney won the primary there in 2012 by supporting statehood.
If Democrats are serious in their proclamations that Puerto Rican is statehood is also about principle, they should then disavow D.C. statehood for the indefinite future or at the very least, treat them as two very different jurisdictions.
There’s a reason why the Founders made the capitol a district and carving up an independent state out of D.C. to exclude federal property would give the city more power on a federal level than any other single city. A change in rhetoric would also help. Emphasizing Puerto Rico’s status as a likely swing state would convince more Republicans than by declaring the constitutional design of the Senate to be a built-in Republican advantage.
At the current moment, the biggest obstacle to Puerto Rican statehood are the non-Puerto Rican advocates for statehood and those who advocate for D.C. statehood as well.