President Trump is opposing statehood for Puerto Rico and Washington D.C. without making any distinctions between the two. That is because he knows Democrats are supporting statehood for both to add two seats for each in the U.S. Senate and thereby presumably secure Democratic Party control of the upper chamber of Congress for the foreseeable future.
And yet, Republicans are highly competitive and consistently win elections in Puerto Rico. Conceding two U.S. Senate seats to Democrats before Puerto Rico even becomes a state is not smart.
Are Puerto Rico and Washington D.C. alike?
Ironically, Trump may lose Florida as a result of his decision to treat Puerto Rico and D.C. the same. There are a million American citizens from the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico living in Florida, representing a powerful swing vote in the central corridor of the state between Tampa and Orlando. 85% of these mostly centrist Republican and Democratic voters favor statehood for Puerto Rico.
Because ethnic Puerto Rican voters are a major swing vote in a major swing state, Trump was not anti-statehood in 2016 and won both the central state and statewide vote over Clinton by just 1%. Florida Senator Rick Scott made nice with pro-statehood Puerto Rico voters in 2018 and similarly sneaked by in central Florida and won the state.
Say Republicans oppose statehood and the Democratic Party in Washington delivers statehood for the territory. The fear that Puerto Rico will be a majority Democrat state may well be a self-fulfilling prophecy. To avoid that mistake, and if Trump wants to have a chance to win Florida, he could and logically should hedge his bets by adopting a clear position based on optimism that Republicans remain competitive nationwide and in Puerto Rico.
Here is a simple policy Trump could have adopted to better ensure Florida would be in his win column in 2020:
- If statehood is democratically chosen by U.S. citizen voters in the 120 year old US territory of Puerto Rico, Congress should define and approve the terms for future admission of Puerto Rico as a state of the union.
- Statehood for Puerto Rico is consistent with the American tradition under which U.S. citizens in 32 territories became states, including in our lifetime the distant noncontiguous territories of Hawaii and Alaska in 1959.
- Accordingly, if a majority of our fellow Americans in the territory choose statehood, like other territories that became states Puerto Rico should be fully incorporated into the union under the U.S Constitution.
- Full incorporation will mean U.S. citizenship and fundamental rights are conferred in the territory under the 14th Amendment of the Constitution instead of federal territorial statutes.
- Thereafter, like all territories that became states, Puerto Rico will be admitted to statehood on terms prescribed by the U.S. Congress.
Separate D.C. statehood
As for D.C., where Trump and Republicans are not competitive, there is a constitutional basis for Trump to adopt a policy different than Puerto Rico.
Washington D.C. is not a U.S. territory as defined by Article IV of the U.S. Constitution, like the 32 territories that became states in the manner prescribed by Article IV.
Admission of D.C. into the union as a state would probably involve repeal of the 23rd Amendment giving its U.S. citizens residents representation in the Electoral College but not Congress.
There is no historical precedent for a reservation constituted as a federal district and seat of government established by Congress under Article I of the U.S. Constitution to be admitted into the union as a state under Article IV.
Accordingly, if Trump wants to oppose statehood for D.C. the following is a logical policy he could have adopted:
- We should respect the will of the people if a majority of U.S. citizen residents of the residential community within the current federal reservation constituting the national capital district vote to end that status and acquire the rights of U.S. citizens in a state of the union.
- Any part of DC that does not want to be part of the national capital any longer should be returned to the state that donated that area to the nation, Maryland, just as the Virginia half of the original DC was returned to Virginia in 1834.
It is probably too little too late for Trump to even try to correct what many Republicans in Florida view as a mistake the President made by opposing statehood for Puerto Rico on the same basis that he opposed Washington D.C. statehood. If he loses Florida, then Trump’s failure to differentiate between Puerto Rico and D.C. may be a strategic mistake he will regret.
If he wins Florida anyway, that will mean he was strong enough to win without the Puerto Rico vote, but it will not change the political reality that the Puerto Rico vote has been and will be again a decisive swing vote in a major swing state.