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Statehood for Territories May Boomerang on Democrats

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Townhall.com.
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

What happens if, as seems much more likely now than it did a year or six months ago, Democrats overturn the Republican majority in the Senate?

No clear answer yet, but NBC News reports Democratic senators have set up a "war room" to enable them to abolish the filibuster and quickly pass a Biden-Harris agenda. Other Democrats have urged that a Democratic Congress admit new states to the Union -- each with two senators, up to a dozen -- to have a view to blocking a Republican majority forever.

Democratic Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer has a political incentive to back such extreme moves. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez could challenge him in 2022, and the 2018 and 2020 results show an increasingly radical primary electorate in New York.

A Democratic sweep this fall might well produce statehood for the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. And possibly for the U.S. Virgin Islands, American Samoa, Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands.

That would be out of line with the American tradition of admitting new states only when they reach a critical mass of population and present a local consensus for statehood. Voters in states with close Senate races this year might want to keep this in mind.

D.C. statehood would also be contrary to the Constitution's provision requiring a national capital subject to Congress. The framers feared a local mob could overpower the federal government, as in London's Gordon riots in 1780 -- and as nearly happened in Lafayette Square outside the White House three months ago.

Puerto Rico is an even dicier candidate for statehood. Its territorial government is bankrupt and its government electricity system in large part unfunctional. Since 2010, some 550,000 Puerto Ricans, 14% of the population, have left for the mainland, primarily to low-tax Florida, not (as in the 1950s) to high-tax New York.

Plus, there's no consensus support for statehood, as there was in Alaska and Hawaii in the 1950s. Politically, Puerto Rico is split down the middle between statehood advocates and those who favor a modified form of the current "estado libre asociado" status (with its own Olympics team!).

As for the other four territories, their combined population is only 375,000 less than the 579,000 or 624,000 of the smallest states, Wyoming and Vermont. The territories were acquired for reasons now obsolete: the U.S. Virgin Islands to protect the Panama Canal; American Samoa as a coaling station in the vast South Pacific; Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands after American victories over Spain in 1898 and Japan in 1945.

Today, the Virgin Islands, like its Caribbean neighbors, are a tourist center. American Samoa has two tuna canneries and produces top-notch college and professional football players. The Northern Marianas' cheap-labor garment factories went bust after the Multifiber Agreement expired in 2005. Having written The Almanac of American Politics chapters on the territories for 40 years, I admire my fellow citizens in these places but don't see them as critical to the nation.

Guam is different. Directly south of Japan and southeast of China, it is loaded with military bases and essential to maintain American military capacities in a region threatened by an aggressive China. But that also means that its 168,000 residents include many military personnel from the 50 existing states and other territories.

And it's not clear that statehood for these territories would produce reliable political gains for Democrats. There's historic precedent. When Republicans won congressional majorities and the presidency in 1888 -- an unusual outcome at the time -- they promptly admitted six new states to the Union and looked forward to the 12 new Republican senators they'd elect.

But by 1896, five of those six states voted Democratic for president, and for years thereafter, these states -- the Dakotas, Montana, Washington, Wyoming, Idaho -- kept electing populists and progressives not at all to the tastes of Benjamin Harrison Republicans.

Republicans and, in Puerto Rico, candidates of the pro-statehood party who identify as Mainland Republicans, have won numerous elections in the territories. Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, American Samoa, Guam and the Northern Marianas have elected all Republicans as governors. All have elected Republicans as their non-voting delegates to Congress, except for the Northern Marianas, which has elected the same person, as a Democrat and an independent, six times.

So, just as Democrats are discovering that Hispanics in Florida and other states are trending away from Joe Biden and toward President Donald Trump -- even though they're People of Color in a Systemically Racist nation -- they may discover, if they pursue their statehood ploy, that voters of varied origin in faraway territories are not as politically reliable as they assume.

Michael Barone is a senior political analyst for the Washington Examiner, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and longtime co-author of The Almanac of American Politics.

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