Quinta Jurecic: Trump is exploiting D.C.’s lack of statehood
The statehood debate got a jolt last June. First, Donald Trump responded to the protests after George Floyd’s death by effectively occupying the capital, sending unidentifiable federalized forces to patrol the streets. Then, toward the end of the month, a statehood bill passed the House with all but one Democratic vote (Collin Peterson of Minnesota) and no Republican support. Mitch McConnell, then the majority leader, refused to bring it to the Senate floor, but Republicans came out against it anyway. Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas, who was fresh off proposing that Trump invoke the Insurrection Act to crush the nationwide protests, delivered a floor speech laying out a straight–from–The Onion argument for why small states should get full rights and D.C. should not. Wyoming, whose population is smaller than D.C.’s, “is a well-rounded working-class state,” he said, noting that its top industries include mining and logging. Washington, D.C., meanwhile, is full of “bureaucrats and other white-collar professionals.”
Other Republicans simply insisted that statehood is unconstitutional, or suggested that Washingtonians should agree to “retro-cession”—Maryland’s reabsorption of the land it granted to establish the capital in 1790. That way, the Republican senators figure, D.C.’s votes would go toward two existing Senate seats that are already solidly Democratic.
Their arguments obscure a deeper truth that Republicans like to talk around: If they thought the GOP had any chance of winning D.C.’s prospective Senate seats, they’d be in favor of statehood. And if they thought they could appeal to the city’s heavily Black electorate, they might think they had that chance. Throughout American history, new states have usually been added in pairs, from the Missouri Compromise in 1820 to the admission of Alaska and Hawaii in the 1950s. Slave state, free state; Republican state, Democratic state. If D.C. had a red counterpart—perhaps one of the nation’s territories—statehood’s prospects would probably be different. But the next-likeliest candidate for statehood is Puerto Rico—and although the island voted in favor of it in the November election, the margin was much smaller than in a comparable D.C. vote in 2016. Republicans wouldn’t likely support statehood for the island, either: Although Puerto Rico has a strong GOP tradition, and its current delegate to Congress is a member of the party, many Republicans doubt they’d be able to count on winning Senate seats there anytime soon. (Some Puerto Ricans advocate instead for total independence, and several Democrats in Congress believe that should be considered.)
Still, the attention that D.C. statehood has gotten since the summer is working in advocates’ favor, Norton told me. “What passage last year did was to break open what had been a very mixed picture,” she said. Public support increased slightly at the time, and again after the insurrectionist riot at the U.S. Capitol in early January, when Maryland’s governor had to wait for clearance from the White House before sending in the National Guard to help law enforcement, including city police officers. But support isn’t high: Recent polls show that only about half the country backs making D.C. a state.