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ANALYSIS: All The Proof You Need That DC Statehood Is All About Politics

(Photo by RICARDO ARDUENGO/AFP via Getty Images)

Dylan Housman Healthcare Reporter
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After emphasizing the importance of statehood for Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico for months during the 2020 election cycle, Democrats suddenly seem to only be concerned with representation for the nation’s capital.

Progressive activists and Democrats across the board have expressed support for making D.C. the 51st state, and the House of Representatives even passed a bill to do so. Puerto Rico, on the other hand, has faded into the background, only receiving attention from a few members of the party. One possible reason is that it’s less sure to be a Democratic win.

Eight of the Democratic Party’s 2020 presidential contenders explicitly called for Puerto Rico to be made a state during the campaign, and most of the rest said Puerto Ricans should be allowed to decide for themselves. The only two candidates who did not take an explicit stance on the issue were now-President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, according to The Washington Post.

Support for Puerto Rican statehood was growing within the Democratic caucus last fall, according to Democratic Florida Rep. Darren Soto. Ironically, one of the few Democrats who stood in outspoken opposition was D.C.’s non-voting delegate in the House, Eleanor Holmes Norton.

“It is bankrupt, so the United States has had to pump money in it just to keep it going. In order to become a state, you [have] to … show that you’re fully able to support yourself,” she said. (RELATED: Chuck Todd Says He Thinks DC, Puerto Rico Will Be States ‘By The End Of This Decade’)

More than 50 Democrats in Congress were sponsoring a bill to make Puerto Rico a state as of March. It hasn’t gone nearly as far as the bill proposing D.C. statehood.

Democratic voters are quite supportive of Puerto Rican statehood. In fact, they like the idea better than actual Puerto Ricans do: a new YouGov poll found that 63% of Democrats would like to see the territory officially become a state. By comparison, only 52% of Puerto Ricans voted “yes” in the 2020 election on a referendum for statehood.

So if Democratic voters want Puerto Rican statehood, and Puerto Ricans are open to the idea, and Democratic politicians were emphasizing it as recently as last year, why is all the action now about D.C. and not the island?

While acts to progress Puerto Rican statehood have stalled, Democrats are aggressively pushing D.C. forward. A bill was passed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and fellow Democrats, and Biden publicly supports the effort as well.

It may simply be a question of politics. (RELATED: DC ‘Statehood Is In My DNA,’ Pelosi Says As She Shows Photo Of Her Father With Eleanor Roosevelt)

Washington, D.C. would almost certainly send two Democratic Senators and one Democratic Representative to Capitol Hill in every single election held there. Democrats have won an astounding 90% or more of the vote in every presidential election in D.C. since 2008, by far the largest consistent winning margin of any state.

Since the non-voting delegate seat was re-created for Washington, D.C. in 1971, the district hasn’t elected a single Republican. It’s possibly the bluest place in the country, and Democrats could use all the help they can get in a United States Senate that’s increasingly geographically unfavorable to them.

Puerto Rico is home to a far more complicated political situation. For starters, it’s unclear how badly Puerto Ricans would like to be a state. While the referendum in 2020 indicated statehood was supported by a 52-47 margin, there’s also a strong contingent on the island that supports full-blown independence.

Puerto Rico also has its own governing system in place as a territory, complete with a legislature and governor. It has a multi-party system with no official Republicans or Democrats in elected office; four different candidates from four different parties got at least 13% of the vote in the 2020 gubernatorial election there.

The biggest difference between D.C. and Puerto Rico is that it isn’t at all clear that Puerto Rico would consistently send two Democrats to the United States Senate. Current Gov. Pedro Pierluisi is affiliated with the Democratic Party, but he only won by less than two points in 2020.

Meanwhile, the island’s Resident Commissioner, who represents Puerto Ricans as a non-voting member of the House, is a longtime Republican. Jenniffer Gonzalez won her 2020 race by nine points. She’s previously served as the chair of the Puerto Rican Republican Party. Both Pierluisi and Gonzalez are members of the island’s New Progressive Party, despite one being aligned with Republicans and the other with Democrats.

“They don’t know how conservative Hispanics and Puerto Ricans are,” Gonzalez told The Hill in September. “I am convinced Puerto Rico will be a competitive state.” (RELATED: America Voted: DC Is The Absolute Worst Place)

Democrats found out the hard way in 2020 just how conservative some Hispanics are. Former President Donald Trump saw a surge in support among Hispanic voters, particularly in Florida and Texas. Democrats have debated since how they can once again gain a stronger hold on a demographic they’ve historically done well with.

It may not be a coincidence that the fervor for Puerto Rican statehood seemed to dwindle after 2020; perhaps Democrats became aware that Puerto Rico won’t consistently elect only Democrats just because it’s populated by Hispanics.

The decrease in support for Puerto Rican statehood among Democrats hasn’t doomed the prospects of it happening, though. The legal pathway is clearer than it would be for D.C. statehood, which would likely require a change to the constitution. Some Republicans have come out in support of Puerto Rican statehood too — perhaps they now are the ones sensing political opportunity.