When House Oversight Committee Ranking Member James Comer stepped up to speak against legislation granting statehood to America’s capital on Thursday, his message was clear: Residents of Washington, DC should not be granted full representation in Congress because of who they might elect.
“America’s federal government should be of the people, by the people, and for the people. But with HR 51, America’s government will become of the Democrats, by the Democrats, and for the Democrats,” he said, referring to the bill number inspired by the goal of making Washington DC into America’s 51st state. He added that the bill is “all about… Democrats adding two new progressive US Senators to push a radical agenda… to reshape America into the socialist utopia they always talk about.”
The questions of whether and how new states should be added to the union have often been seen in zero-sum terms. In the years leading up to the American Civil War, for instance, the fates of territories seeking admission as states were often linked to whether there would be a way to maintain a balance of pro-slavery and anti-slavery states in the upper chamber.
And though slavery is no more, racial concerns continued to weigh heavily on the admission process through the middle of last century, when support for admitting Alaska and Hawaii to the union was largely dependent on one’s position on civil rights for Black Americans.
When Congress finally approved statehood for both territories in 1959, it only did so following filibusters and threats from both Republicans — opposed to Alaska’s admission — and Democrats — opposed to Hawaii’s admission — with the understanding that both would be admitted so as to maintain the status quo.
Then, as now, the implications for the balance of power in the Senate are far more important to opponents of expanding the union than the rights of those people living there. Unlike any other territory seeking admission as a state, Washington DC has a track record of voting for Democrats. Republicans are now pointing to these elected Democrats as evidence that Senators from Washington, Douglass Commonwealth (the name chosen for the proposed 51st state) would not be among their allies.
To a casual observer, they might have a point. Over the course of 15 presidential elections conducted since the 23rd Amendment allotted the capital three electoral votes in 1961, the majority of Washington DC residents have voted for a Republican exactly zero times — including when they joined Minnesota on the wrong side of Ronald Reagan’s 1984 landslide win.
But those who know both the Washington DC area and the GOP best — DC-area Republicans — say House Republicans who claim that a 51st state would hand Democrats two Senate seats to hold forever are ignorant of both the people they are writing off and the history of the country they serve.
“Your average member of Congress, they represent a House district somewhere else in the country, so they are less familiar with the District of Columbia outside whatever geographic area of the city they live in,” said DC Republican Party Chair Patrick Mara. “Probably the road they most travel is from the House office buildings to the airport, so… I would say that they’re definitely a little less aware.”
Speaking during a break in a Republican National Committee training session, Mara explained how the GOP actually has a long history in the nation’s capital, and has frequently been supportive of expanding the district’s right to self-government, with the question remaining an academic one until recently.
“The DC Republican Party has, since Eisenhower… always supported DC voting rights,” he said. “You could probably go back even further than that — Frederick Douglass was a precinct captain in the DC Republican Party — so you can go back a long time.”
For Mara, DC’s failure to give electoral votes to any Republican presidential candidates is more an indicator of past problems than a predictor of future futility. Because DC only has three electoral votes, it’s hard for national Republicans to justify devoting presidential campaign resources to the sort of education and outreach effort it would take to convince DC residents to buck historical trends. But Mara said the solution to that problem is to put in the effort to elect Republicans locally.
“DC is growing, the opportunities in DC are growing, and the population is growing… and… when a population grows, there’s more opportunity to find voters within that population,” he said, adding that with sufficient effort to elect Republicans to local office, the party could develop the talent and reputation necessary to gain DC residents’ trust.
Another prominent DC-area Republican, former Virginia Representative Tom Davis, has a long history of advocating for capital residents in one form or another. In the early 2000s, he sponsored legislation that would have given the district’s House delegate a full vote while adding one representative from deep-red Utah to maintain the House’s partisan balance.
In a phone interview, the former Congressman said there are a number of valid arguments that can be made against admitting DC as a state under the current proposal. The one being made by his former colleagues which says DC should be denied statehood because it would result in two more Democratic Senators, however, is not one of them.
“It’s it is hard to argue with a straight face that people that fought and died in a half a dozen wars and pay federal income tax shouldn’t have federal representation,” he said. “If they were voting Republican, they’d be there in a heartbeat.”
Like Mara, Davis criticized his former colleagues for their insistence that DC voters are somehow incapable of being persuaded to vote for a Republican senator. “When Alaska was brought in the union, it was the Democratic state and Hawaii was the Republican state, right? Half a century late, it’s flipped,” he explained. “It hasn’t gotten any more Republican since voting for president… but look, nothing is in perpetuity. Coalitions are not static, they are constantly mutating, and today [DC] is a solidly Democratic state, but who knows how these things evolve over time?”
Many of the House Republicans who spoke on Thursday took pains to deny that their opposition to DC statehood was at all rooted in fear of admitting a state with a majority Black population. Instead, they chose to stick to arguments about how DC statehood would be a “Democrat power grab”. But a veteran observer of both DC-area and national politics — University of Virginia Center for Politics founder Larry Sabato — said that those members “doth protest too much” when asked about such protestations on Thursday.
“Anybody who would assume that race has dissipated as a factor in their evaluation of this bill is terribly naïve,” he explained before recounting a story of a House Republican — now since retired — who once admitted that race has long been a driving force behind GOP opposition to DC statehood.
“I’ll never forget it, this moderate Republican Congressman said to me: ‘This is outrageous — my fellow party members are opposing it simply because the representatives would be Black and Democratic. If this were a white city… they would all be for it because of the taxation without representation,’” he recalled, adding later: “And then they wonder why most Blacks won’t even consider voting Republican.”
While Sabato conceded that Republicans were probably right to presume that a newly admitted state of Douglass Commonwealth would initially elect Democratic Senators or independents who caucus with Democrats, he cautioned against assuming that would be the case indefinitely.
“‘In perpetuity’ is a dangerous phrase to use because things change more rapidly than most of us can imagine,” he said. “We’re very bad at predicting things far in the future, and we’re not particularly good at predicting tomorrow.”
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