There Once Was a Republican Fight for D.C. Statehood

RIP

An elephant waving a D.C. flag
Paul Spella / The Atlantic

About the author: David A. Graham is a staff writer at The Atlantic.

Updated at 9:20 a.m. ET on June 17, 2021.

When residents of Washington, D.C., got the chance to vote in the 1956 presidential primaries, their first opportunities to vote since Reconstruction, it was at the behest of a Republican president, Dwight Eisenhower, who phrased his support in conservative terms: “In the District of Columbia the time is long overdue for granting national suffrage to its citizens and also applying the principle of local self-government to the Nation’s Capital.” When the district gained electoral votes under the Twenty-Third Amendment in 1961, the charge was led by Senator Kenneth Keating, a New York Republican. In 1970, Republican President Richard Nixon signed legislation giving the district a nonvoting delegate in the House. And when another amendment sought to give D.C. full congressional representation in 1978, the Republican Edward Brooke, of Massachusetts, introduced the measure in the Senate.

This largely forgotten history is surprising today, when the GOP is dead set against statehood for the district—something many Democrats portray as an almost-existential necessity. But representation for Washington was once a matter of bipartisan agreement, and as recently as 15 years ago, Mike Pence was in favor of it. The Republican path from support to furious opposition is a microcosm of the GOP’s broader shift toward a much more restrictive approach to voting rights. This is partly a story about realignments within the two major parties, but it is also a story about the entrenchment of winner-takes-all politics.

“The issue of representation for the people of D.C. has not changed at all,” says Perry O’Brien, the organizing director of Common Defense and a member of the Defend American Democracy coalition, who has compiled a history of past GOP support for various proposals on the issue. “What has changed is if the Republican Party was ever seriously concerned about preserving our basic democratic institutions, they clearly are not any longer.”

At one time, though, the GOP clearly was concerned. From 1956 to 1976, both the Democratic and Republican platforms called for congressional representation for D.C., according to the historian George Derek Musgrove, with the exception of the 1964 GOP platform. The District of Columbia Voting Rights Amendment had bipartisan support when it passed Congress in 1978. Among its backers was Senator Strom Thurmond, the notoriously racist Dixiecrat turned Republican from South Carolina, whose support helped sway other GOP votes.

“It is just not fair that in the year 1978, more than 700,000 American citizens do not have the right to elect representatives to Congress,” Thurmond said. “No one in 1790, when the District was created, could have imagined the rapid growth and changes that were to take place in the District of Columbia.”

Barry Goldwater, the very conservative though sometimes idiosyncratic senator from Arizona, agreed. “The right to vote in federal elections is a right that flows directly from the Constitution to each citizen of the United States. This right is one belonging to national citizenship and it arises out of the very nature and existence of the nation itself,” he said during Senate debate. “It is the right thing to do.”

After the DCVRA passed Congress, however, the conservative movement that had sprung from Goldwater’s presidential campaign began an effort to prevent the amendment from being ratified in the states, fearing (probably correctly) that representation for D.C.’s majority-black, solidly Democratic population would boost liberal priorities such as the Equal Rights Amendment and more sweeping affirmative action.

The coalition succeeded not only in stopping the DCVRA, but also snuffing out most Republican support for D.C. representation up to the present. (Because of constitutional limitations, there are really just two ways to provide congressional representation to D.C.: either a constitutional amendment like the DCVRA, or else statehood, which would automatically grant representation without requiring an amendment.)

By 1993, when D.C. statehood came up in Congress, only a single Republican voted in favor in the House, though a few Republicans have backed the idea of representation in the years since. In 2007, the conservative legal luminary (and former Whitewater independent counsel) Ken Starr told Congress:

A republican, that is representative, form of government, is a foundational cornerstone in the Constitution’s structure; the denial of representation was one of the provocations that generated the Declaration of Independence and the War that implemented it. Article I creates the republican form of the national government, and Article IV guarantees that form to its people, regardless of whether they reside in a District or a State.

Then-Representative Mike Pence also spoke in favor of the District of Columbia House Voting Rights Act of 2007. “The fact that more than half a million Americans live in the District of Columbia and are denied a single voting representative in Congress is clearly a historic wrong, and justice demands that it be addressed,” he said. (Pence did not respond to a request for comment.)

The bill never passed, and few Republicans have spoken that way since. Some have couched their opposition to statehood in constitutional terms or embraced deflections such as retrocession. By 2020, the president whom Pence served as vice president was ruling it out flatly.

“D.C. will never be a state,” Donald Trump told the New York Post in May 2020. “You mean District of Columbia, a state? Why? So we can have two more Democratic—Democrat senators and five more congressmen? No thank you. That’ll never happen.” (How Trump came up with five is unclear; based on current population, D.C. would likely have a single representative.)

In this interview, Trump made explicit what other Republicans were unwilling to say quite so openly, as he often did: Fairness isn’t the point. Winning elections is the point, and that means keeping the “wrong” people from voting.

That transformation dates to the same period when conservative activists killed the DCVRA. As late as the 1960s, the Republican Party was integral to federal efforts to protect and expand voting rights. The Senate Republican leader Everett Dirksen co-sponsored the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the bill passed—despite the opposition of many southern Democrats—because Republicans supported it.

But the same coalition that helped kill the DCVRA also helped elect Ronald Reagan as president in 1980. During that campaign, Reagan spoke in favor of “states’ rights,” and as president he tried to seriously water down the Voting Rights Act, though he was largely unsuccessful. In Alabama, a young U.S. attorney whom Reagan appointed, Jeff Sessions, pursued voting-rights activists. The recent Republican consensus that Democrats can win elections only by fraud is new, but it is the product of decades of falsely claiming that American voting systems are plagued by widespread fraud. At the state level, Republicans around the country are seeking to make voting more difficult.

Meanwhile, the makeup of the parties has changed. Where both once had liberal and conservative wings, the Democratic Party is now solidly liberal and the GOP uniformly conservative. The former is now heavily reliant on Black votes, while the latter is a largely white coalition. The United States is not only polarized but also so closely divided that small differences in the vote can produce big differences in the winners of elections, control of Congress, and governance. In this environment, there’s no chance that the Republican Party as a whole would agree to grant more power to D.C. residents, and any individual member who stuck his or her neck out would risk opprobrium not just from voters but from colleagues.

Democrats’ motives in the D.C.-statehood battle are not exactly altruistic either. Although the party has long been on the record as supportive of statehood, that hasn’t always turned into action. During his 1992 presidential campaign, Bill Clinton endorsed statehood, but when it came up for a vote in 1993, Clinton declined to press the issue, and the bill was handily defeated. Barack Obama also disappointed advocates with his tepid, infrequent remarks about statehood.

Now Democrats have strong political motivations to be more aggressive. They barely control the Senate and the House and are in danger of losing both in 2022. In general, the current shape of politics puts Democrats at a structural disadvantage, so gaining a voting House seat and especially two Senate seats would strengthen their chances at controlling Congress in the near future. Unfortunately for the party, Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia has already signaled his opposition to statehood, likely dooming the effort.

Nevertheless, the Senate will hold a hearing next Tuesday to discuss D.C. statehood. “I am more confident than ever that we can make D.C. statehood a reality this Congress,” Senator Tom Carper, the Delaware Democrat, said last month. But every major grant of power to the district over the past seven decades has come with the support of Republicans. If Carper wants to make statehood happen today, however, he’ll have to find a way to do it without Republican votes.