Control of the United States Senate remains uncertain, after a general election where politicians on both sides of the aisle campaigned for and against abolishing the filibuster, packing the Supreme Court and granting statehood for the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico states of the Union.
In fact, some Republicans actually campaigned on making sure D.C. and Puerto Rico do not become states. This strategy was implemented out of fear that both territories would elect Democrats to serve in the Senate, automatically handing the Democrats four additional senators and control of the Senate for the foreseeable future.
Electoral history shows that Washington, D.C. would be a reliably blue state and it would likely elect Democratic candidates in statewide races. But would it be the same case for Puerto Rico? The answer is no. Puerto Rico and D.C. are very different.
Here are the facts: Puerto Rico’s current governor is a Republican; the island’s lone representative in the U.S. House of Representatives is a Republican; the Speaker of the Puerto Rico House of Representatives and the President of the Puerto Rico Senate are both staunch conservative Republicans. The island has elected Republicans to statewide office in the past as well. The statehood movement as well as the local statehood party on the island were founded by members of the Republican Party.
Historically, the GOP has been the party that embraces Puerto Rico statehood. Many Republican presidents, from Dwight Eisenhower to Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, have strongly supported statehood for the island.
Now, while it is important to acknowledge that Puerto Rico would not be an “R+20” state, since the island has also elected Democrats in statewide races in the past, it is also crucial (and encouraging) for the GOP to know that the majority of Puerto Ricans do not strongly identify as either Democrats or Republicans.
Unfortunately, national media has portrayed Puerto Rico as an anti-GOP liberal haven in the past, particularly when Hurricanes Irma and Maria wreaked havoc in 2017. Different media outlets provided extensive coverage to what the mayor of San Juan had to say about the President and the federal government’s response to the disaster. The mayor, a Democratic socialist who served as one of Senator Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign managers, utilized her speaking time with the national media to repeatedly slam the President, the White House and FEMA. Many Americans across the country interpreted that the mayor’s combative rhetoric against the federal government and her left-wing views were representative of how people on the island felt, but that could not have been further from the truth. The mayor ran for governor of Puerto Rico this year and lost a three-person primary race garnering less than 15% of the vote.
The overwhelming majority of Puerto Ricans are strongly against socialism. Most Puerto Ricans are against tax hikes and many acknowledge that “big government” played a big role in what led to the island’s economic crisis. Many people on the island identify as Christians and Catholics. A significant number of them are entrepreneurs and small business owners looking for opportunities and incentives to grow. While the majority of these folks do not identify as Republicans or Democrats, they most closely align with center-right views and family values.
That population represents an opportunity for the GOP to expand its electorate. It is an opportunity for the Party of Lincoln to approach these men and women and present itself as the institution that believes in what they believe.
Now, if national Republicans fall for the ill-informed notion (promoted by some in the media) that Puerto Rico would be a state as blue as Hawaii or D.C. and decide to oppose statehood, growing the Republican Party in Puerto Rico will become an uphill battle.
What Republicans should be concerned about is that if they ultimately decide that it is best to oppose statehood for Puerto Rico while the GOP is in control of the Senate, they may be letting the Democrats become the party that granted statehood to the island. As a result, many Puerto Ricans, not only on the island but also those who live in battleground states like Florida and Pennsylvania, will permanently become Democrats. Something the GOP could be avoided by expanding its tent and embracing the opportunity Puerto Rico statehood represents for the party.
Carlos Flores is a law student who serves as Director of Public Policy for the Puerto Rico Young Republican Federation.