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Puerto Rico inches closer to statehood, but without key GOP support

Despite RNC platform support, issue has little traction with GOP leaders

Puerto Ricans want another star added to the American flag. 

The island commonwealth’s U.S. citizens couldn’t vote for president, but they did approve a nonbinding referendum that asked whether Puerto Rico should be immediately admitted into the union as a state. With 95 percent of precincts reporting Wednesday afternoon, the pro-statehood vote was leading, 52 percent to 48 percent.

It’s the sixth time voters have been asked whether they believe the U.S. territory should become a state and the third time they voted in favor of statehood.

“There’s no doubt that a majority of people favor statehood,” Puerto Rico Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González-Colón said Wednesday after winning a second four-year term as the island’s nonvoting House member. “This is the only issue that unites Puerto Ricans in this election when the rest of the candidates, even me, got less votes than the statehood option.”

‘In perpetuity’

Statehood for Puerto Rico, as well as Washington, D.C., has become a divisive issue, with Republicans viewing the move as creating reliable Democratic seats in Congress, including four in the Senate. 

“After they change the filibuster, they’re going to admit the District as a state. They’re going to admit Puerto Rico as a state. That’s four new Democratic senators in perpetuity,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said in September.

The island’s statehood advocates push back on the GOP lumping Puerto Rico with the District of Columbia. They also point out that Puerto Rican statehood is a part of the Republican National Committee platform.

While the District’s congressional delegate, Eleanor Holmes Norton, is a Democrat and Democrats dominate local government, González-Colón, a Republican, says those who assume the island would elect Democratic lawmakers aren’t paying attention.

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“When people say that Puerto Rico is going to become a Democratic state, they don’t look at their statistics locally,” she said in an earlier interview with CQ Roll Call, explaining that many on the island are “very conservative people.”

While there has been strong support among Democrats for D.C. statehood, fewer Democrats have taken positions on statehood for Puerto Rico. 

Most have said it is up to the island territory’s residents to decide. And it’s not clear whether a statehood bill could pass if the Senate remains in Republican hands, which looks increasingly likely.

“Believe me, on D.C. and Puerto Rico — particularly if Puerto Rico votes for it, D.C. already has voted for it and wants it — [we] would love to make them states,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer told MSNBC in September.

McConnell isn’t a supporter of Puerto Rico becoming a state, and on the campaign trail and on the Senate floor, the Kentucky Republican has warned that the statehood push would lead to an elimination of the chamber’s much-eroded filibuster rules and to “packing the courts” with simple-majority votes.

It’s been more than 61 years since the admission of Hawaii as the 50th state. The U.S. has never gone this long between admitting new states. Previously the record was nearly 47 years — from when Arizona was admitted in 1912 and the addition of Alaska in 1959. Before that, the longest interlude was nearly 15 years, between the admission of Missouri in 1821 and Arkansas in 1836.

González-Colón said statehood may become a “main issue for Puerto Ricans,” especially those living in states with large populations of Puerto Ricans who left the island territory and now live in places such as Florida and New York, where they can vote for president and Congress.

In their platform

The election rhetoric from other Republicans warning of dangers caused by admitting Puerto Rico as a state struck some as strange because it’s in their own platform, which this year was left unchanged from 2016.

“We support the right of the United States citizens of Puerto Rico to be admitted to the Union as a fully sovereign state,” the platform states.

The Census Bureau estimates that about 3.2 million people live in Puerto Rico, a population that has seen declines accelerate after hurricanes Irma and Maria, according to the Pew Research Center

The center estimated that as of 2013 more than 5 million Puerto Ricans lived on the U.S. mainland. 

The fact that many live and vote in state elections isn’t lost on some Republicans, including Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who’s spoken in support of statehood. 

“I support the right of our fellow Americans in Puerto Rico to seek admission to the union as a state. I will continue working on our strategy of building support in the Senate and creating the conditions necessary to achieve the 60 votes needed for success,” Rubio said in a statement after a bill to admit Puerto Rico was introduced in 2018.

Paul Strauss, one of the District of Columbia’s shadow senators (elected officials who lobby for D.C. statehood), said admitting either Puerto Rico or D.C. as states would even out the Senate, which he called a “uniquely undemocratic institution” that favors smaller population states at the expense of the broader population.

He also said it was “dangerous” to look at the decadeslong fight for statehood as a Democratic retaliation for recent events.

“Statehood is an issue of fundamental equality for the people who live in the District of Columbia and territories that want it,” Strauss said.

González-Colón said the strategy Republicans are using on the campaign trail to put down Puerto Rico “may backfire” and erode support for the GOP on the island.

Now with another referendum favoring statehood, Republicans may need to do more outreach to residents of the U.S. territory.

“It’s not about if you’re a Democrat. It’s not about if you’re a Republican,” González-Colón said. “It’s about what you’re doing for Puerto Rico.”

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