Republicans Need Not Fear Puerto Rico
There was a time when Republicans supported Puerto Rican statehood. Reagan, Ford, and Bush Sr. all championed the right for Puerto Rico to gain statehood and Bob Dole even introduced a bill to let Puerto Ricans vote on whether a 51st star should be added to the U.S. flag for them. But as polarization has gnawed its way into every facet of our politics recently, the Democrats have become the party of Puerto Rican statehood, while Republicans have firmly staked out a position across the aisle as the anti-statehood party. As disgusting as it is that our two parties can’t even unite for the sake of addressing one of America’s most egregious mass disenfranchisements, it’s equally frustrating that Congress has chosen to polarize on this particular issue. Why? Republican fears and Democratic exuberance about Puerto Rican statehood don’t even make damn sense.
It’s easy to say why Puerto Rican statehood seems to immediately trigger Republican nightmares and Democratic fantasy: the chief wisdom in Washington is that Puerto Rico would immediately become a safely blue addition to the delicate electoral map. As a newly admitted state, Puerto Rico would add seven electoral college votes for President, five members in the House of Representatives, and, most crucially, two new Senators. The Senate seats are of particular importance considering the Senate majority is often decided by a margin within two seats (including after 2020 elections). However, politicians on both sides of the aisle seem to agree that every seat in Puerto Rico would be a shoo-in for the Dems. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell called Democrats’ push for Puerto Rican statehood a partisan ploy “that would give them two more new Democratic senators.”
A partisan ploy? Not so fast.
National assumptions about Puerto Rico being safely Democratic make sense on the surface level. These assumptions likely stem from generalizations about Latinos as an overall group since they lean towards Democrats with estimates showing that about two-thirds of them voted for Biden in the 2020 election. But even looking specifically at Puerto Ricans in the mainland U.S., we can see that they are mostly Democratic, with over 65% of them self-identifying as such. Of course, the Latino vote is tremendously diverse and varies greatly depending upon ethnicity, location, and income. 2020, however, more than any election before, has truly revealed the fractured, and often unpredictable, nature of America’s Latino voters. Firstly, there was the infamous case of South Florida, where the traditionally Democratic Miami-Dade county swung over 22 points in Trump’s favor between 2016 and 2020, making Florida the only swing state where Trump improved on his 2016 performance. Post-election autopsies have revealed a myriad of factors for the Florida surprise, but the main cause appears to have been Trump’s stunning ability to turn out Latino voters as he won 55% of Cubans (a famously conservative group) but also 30 percent of Puerto Ricans and 48 percent of “other Latinos” in the state. But much like the news that pours from the state, politics in Florida is always weird, right? Well, then let’s look at a far more interesting shift of 2020: that of South Texas.
The counties along the Rio Grande River in Southern Texas are some of the most heavily Latino, and some of the most Democratic, in the nation. The people in these border countries are mostly Mexican-Americans or Chicanos (Mexican-Americans with ancestry in the U.S. often dating back to when the U.S. stole this region from Mexico). Unlike many Latinos in Florida, these voters have been solidly Dems for decades and helped deliver rather routinely enormous victories for Clinton in 2016, including by 60 points in Starr County and by 33 points in Zapata County, two heavily Latino border counties. But in 2020, a political earthquake shook South Texas. Biden won Starr County by just 5 points, and he lost Zapata to Trump. Latinos in South Texas swung hard for Trump. As stunning as this shift seems, it makes sense to South Texas Representative Henry Cuellar, who points out that, just like most other places where Trump and other Republicans often perform well, the region “[is] homogenous, deeply religious, pensively patriotic, socially conservative, and hurting economically.” These adjectives don’t just describe the Rio Grande Valley; they almost perfectly describe Puerto Rico.
Puerto Rican politics remain mostly divorced from stateside party politics. Voters in the commonwealth choose from parties not based on their alignment with the Republican-Democratic axis, but rather on their views regarding whether Puerto Rico should become a state or retain its commonwealth status. Currently, the pro-statehood party holds the governorship and their members ideologically side with both Republicans and Democrats. However, the voters of Puerto Rico are still far more conservative than one might think. Propelled by their deep religiosity, many Puerto Ricans go overwhelmingly conservative on social matters with a Pew poll finding that over three-quarters of Puerto Ricans think abortion should be illegal in all or most circumstances. Over half of them even think gay marriage should be outlawed, a belief that has already been rejected at the policy level in the U.S. A far cry from the often progressive attitudes of Mexican-Americans and other stateside Latinos, Puerto Ricans sound like conservative Republicans in waiting. Additionally, some have postulated that the Republicans’ friendliness towards states’ rights might give them the edge in Puerto Rico, where voters could be skeptical of the federal government quickly encroaching on the commonwealth which retained an aspect of independence for so long.
Despite the esoteric politics of Puerto Rico, there is one election each cycle that might be a bit more familiar for mainlanders: Resident Commissioner of Puerto Rico. The Commissioner is essentially a non-voting delegate in the U.S. House of Representatives, and as a result, she must identify with a mainland political party and clearly project that identification to Puerto Rican voters before they cast their ballots. So who is Puerto Rico’s current Resident Commissioner? Her name is Jenniffer González, and she aligns with the Republicans. In 2020, she chaired “Latinos for Trump” in the same year that Puerto Ricans re-elected her by a 9 point margin of victory over her Democratic challenger. Make no mistake about it, Puerto Rico’s sole current venture into national politics is a solidly red one.
Now, none of this means that Puerto Rico would become a safe, or even likely, Republican state. Instead, as Politico astutely noted last September, the new state would likely add itself to the long list of America’s most quintessential battlegrounds. The Resident Commissioner position is currently held by a Republican, but Democrats have won it in the past. However, Republicans on the Hill should see statehood as an opportunity to fight for more seats in an electoral map that is increasingly slipping away from them, not as a partisan power grab by power-hungry Dems. And Democrats: quit the hubris. Puerto Rico isn’t and will never be safe for you. So let’s stop the partisan jabbering and make Puerto Rico a state. Then, the political games can truly begin.