A pro-Donald Trump super PAC and Ron DeSantis’ presidential campaign are both spinning the facts about support for Puerto Rican statehood.
A TV ad from the super PAC claims that when DeSantis, now Florida’s governor, was a U.S. congressman, he “sided with the liberals” and sponsored a bill “to make Puerto Rico a state,” a move it said would result in adding two Democrats to the Senate.
The DeSantis campaign says the bill “didn’t grant or take a position on Puerto Rican statehood” but merely “clarified the process by which statehood would be granted to ensure it was subject to the will of the American people and a full congressional vote.”
But that soft-pedals the intent of the bill. The bill title states that it seeks “to enable the admission of the territory of Puerto Rico into the Union as a State.” After a transition process, the bill envisioned “final admission into the Union as a State no later than January 1, 2021.”
DeSantis’ campaign also argues that Trump once staked a similar position. When he was running for president in January 2016, Trump released a statement saying that Puerto Rico’s residents “should be entitled to determine for themselves their political status.” He said: “The will of the Puerto Rican people in any status referendum should be considered as Congress follows through on any desired change in status for Puerto Rico, including statehood.”
As president, Trump’s position on statehood turned to firm opposition after he clashed with several elected leaders in Puerto Rico who criticized his response to Hurricane Maria in 2017.
The ad attacking DeSantis is notable because its creator, the super PAC Make America Great Again Inc., had been ignoring DeSantis for months — at least when it comes to negative ads — focusing instead on attacking President Joe Biden. The ad, called “Power Play,” is airing in Iowa, which will hold its first-in-the-nation caucuses on Jan. 15.
A Des Moines Register/NBC News/Mediacom Iowa poll in late October showed Trump leading among likely Republican caucusgoers with 43%, well ahead of DeSantis and Nikki Haley, who were tied with 16%.
Puerto Rico’s Status
Puerto Rico became a sovereignty of the U.S. after the Spanish American War in 1898. The island officially became a U.S. territory in 1917, and its residents became U.S. citizens. However, the roughly 3.3. million residents of the island cannot vote in general elections — though they can in primaries — and they have no voting representation in Congress.
Puerto Rico has a resident commissioner who serves in the U.S. House of Representatives but cannot vote on the floor.
In 2012 and again in 2017 and 2020, plebiscite votes in Puerto Rico showed majority support for statehood. But the idea has never gained enough traction in Congress for such a proposal to move forward. In order for Puerto Rico to become a state, legislation would have to pass both the House and Senate and be signed into law by the president.
Puerto Rican statehood historically has been supported more by Democratic leaders than Republican ones, Charles Venator Santiago, an associate professor of political science at the University of Connecticut, told us in a phone interview. Although the current resident commissioner who serves in the House is a Republican, that was more of a political consideration than an ideological one, he said. The governor of Puerto Rico is a Democrat.
“Most Puerto Ricans’ political leaders across ideology and local political parties identify with the Democratic Party,” Venator Santiago said. “In primaries, Democratic candidates tend to garner twice as many votes as Republican candidates. Democratic Party leaders tend to be more supportive of statehood than Republicans. Democrats have a longer track record of supporting social programs in Puerto Rico.”
But others aren’t convinced that federal elected leaders from Puerto Rico would necessarily be Democrats.
“Regarding this assumption [that residents of Puerto Rico would overwhelmingly support Democrats], I must say it is a widely popular, but incorrect one,” Mayra Vélez Serrano, a political scientist at the University of Puerto Rico, told us via email. “Although we don’t have good data to establish how likely it is that, if PR becomes a state, it will vote overwhelmingly for the Democratic Party, we have some data that shows this might not be true.”
Results of the World Survey Values in 2001 and 2018 “show that in many politicized issues such as abortion, Puerto Ricans are very conservative,” she said.
“The survey included multiple items to measure the respondent’s stance in issues of individualism vs collectivism, and ethical and moral values, and Puerto Ricans were mostly positioned center to right of the ideological spectrum,” Vélez Serrano said. “Thus, there’s no evidence that Puerto Ricans are natural born Democrats. The evidence does show that we are heterogenous population, and that conservatives’ policies will very likely attract a great [portion] of the population.”
The MAGA Inc. Ad
Nonetheless, the MAGA Inc. ad assumes elected leaders from a Puerto Rican state would be Democrats, and it accuses DeSantis of playing into Democrats’ hands with his support of the Puerto Rico Admission Act of 2018.
“Liberals have a plan to make Puerto Rico a state, adding two Democrats to the Senate,” the ad’s narrator says. “And Ron DeSantis sided with the liberals’ power play. DeSantis actually sponsored the bill to make Puerto Rico a state. … DeSantis sided with the liberals and sold out Iowa conservatives.”
The ad states as a fact that Puerto Rico becoming a state would result in “adding two Democrats to the Senate.” An image cites a Newsweek article as the basis for its claim that “statehood for Puerto Rico means more Democrats.” But as we have said, that’s an opinion, not a certainty.
The Dec. 22, 2022, Newsweek article says, “Much of the Republican Party remains hostile to statehood for Puerto Rico, with many fearful it would likely hand the Democrats another two seats in the Senate.”
Although Puerto Rican statehood bills tend to get more support from Democrats, numerous Republicans have also supported such bills, including some from Florida where Puerto Ricans are a powerful voting bloc, with nearly 860,000 eligible voters in 2018, according to the Pew Research Center. Florida Republican Sens. Rick Scott and Marco Rubio, for example, have both consistently expressed support for Puerto Rican statehood.
“Unfortunately, at this time most of my colleagues, even in the Democrat Party and also in the Republican, do not support that,” Rubio told Univision/Orlando in 2021. “But that can change, that can be changed. And that is about working, explaining, teaching and educating the Puerto Rican reality and the reason why that [statehood] is important.”
Rep. Elise Stefanik, chair of the House Republican Conference, also co-sponsored the Puerto Rico Admission Act of 2018.
“I am supportive of statehood for Puerto Rico, if that is what the people of Puerto Rico decide to pursue,” Stefanik said last December. “And I have consistently supported legislation throughout my time in Congress that would achieve the goals of self-determined statehood, a principle which has been a long-held position of the Republican Party.”
The Puerto Rico Admission Act of 2018
The Puerto Rico Admission Act was introduced by Puerto Rico’s resident commissioner, Jennifer González-Colón. In a press release issued the day the bill was introduced, June 27, 2018, González-Colón advocated statehood and talked about the “unequal treatment” Puerto Rico received after Hurricane Maria “due solely to our territorial situation.”
The bill sought to deem the plebiscites in 2012 and 2017 as “sufficient to trigger the transition process to Statehood.” The legislation called for the creation of a task force to study and make recommendations to Congress and the president about some logistics related to the transition to statehood.
According to González-Colón’s press release, “After the transition process, and no later than January 1, 2021, the President of the United States must issue a Proclamation declaring that Puerto Rico has ceased to be an incorporated territory of the United States and will be admitted to the Union as a State.”
“It was a pro-statehood admission bill,” Venator Santiago said.
But a spokesman for the DeSantis campaign insists the bill took no position on Puerto Rican statehood.
“The legislation you reference that DeSantis cosponsored (with 37 other members of Congress) didn’t grant or take a position on Puerto Rican statehood,” Bryan Griffin, a spokesman for the DeSantis campaign, told us via email. “It clarified the process by which statehood would be granted to ensure it was subject to the will of the American people and a full congressional vote.”
Griffin pointed to a section of the bill under the heading “Congressional Intent” that reads, “The enactment of this Act expresses the intent of Congress to pass legislation based upon the Task Force’s final report.”
“It put a process in place for PR to be potentially considered if they met specific parameters and, then, after affirmation by Congress,” Griffin said.
We asked Griffin what DeSantis’ current position was on statehood, but we did not get a response. We could not find any statements from DeSantis after he left Congress that articulates a position on the statehood issue.
New Progressive Party Rep. José Enrique “Quiquito” Meléndez, a lawmaker in Puerto Rico’s House of Representatives, told CE Noticias Financieras in a recent interview that it was past time for DeSantis to speak up on the issue.
“He must take a public position on statehood,” Meléndez said.
In a recent virtual event with voters in the U.S. Virgin Islands, DeSantis seemed to tip his hand, however, when he was asked if he supported congressional representation for U.S. territories.
“Well, how would the Virgin Islands vote for president — would they be red or blue?” DeSantis said. “I don’t want to pony up free electoral votes for the other team.”
“Obviously I think that we have these territories, people are Americans, and they should be treated as equal citizens,” DeSantis said. “How that works with the Electoral College, I’m not sure that there’s going to be necessarily a movement on that front, but I do think just generally speaking, the more equal the better.”
In response to the MAGA Inc. ad, Griffin also noted a statement from Trump that staked a similar position as the 2018 bill on the issue in January 2016.
“There are 3.7 million American citizens living in Puerto Rico. As citizens, they should be entitled to determine for themselves their political status,” Trump said in the statement. “I am firmly committed to the process where Puerto Ricans might resolve their status according to Constitutional and Congressional protocols. I believe the people of Puerto Rico deserve a process of status self-determination that gives them a fair and unambiguous choice on this matter. As president I will do my part to insure that Congress follows the Constitution. The will of the Puerto Rican people in any status referendum should be considered as Congress follows through on any desired change in status for Puerto Rico, including statehood.”
The GOP platform in 2016 also included support for Puerto Rican statehood.
“We support the right of the United States citizens of Puerto Rico to be admitted to the Union as a fully sovereign state,” the 2016 Republican platform stated. It cited the 2012 referendum in favor of statehood and concluded, “Once the 2012 local vote for statehood is ratified, Congress should approve an enabling act with terms for Puerto Rico’s future admission as the 51st state of the Union.”
The Republican Party didn’t adopt a new platform in 2020.
Trump’s position on statehood took a hard turn, however, after he clashed with some elected officials in Puerto Rico who criticized his response to Hurricane Maria, which made landfall on the island in September 2017. (As we have written, Trump drew the ire of some officials in Puerto Rico after he wrongly claimed the official death toll from the hurricane had been inflated — DeSantis publicly contradicted him at the time — and grossly overstated the amount of disaster relief the federal government had supplied to Puerto Rico.)
In a working lunch at the White House in June 2018, then Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló urged Trump to pursue “what we call the unfinished business of American democracy, and using your word, sir, you want to make America great again. I think, we can make it greater and expanding it to include Puerto Rico as the 51st state.”
Trump dismissed the comment, joking, “Ricardo is going to guarantee us two Republican senators, right? Is that correct? Make that process very quick. Might be a very quick process.”
“I guarantee Puerto Rico will be a battleground state,” Rosselló said.
Just a few months later, in September 2018, Trump was more unequivocal, saying he was an “absolute no” on statehood for Puerto Rico.
“With the mayor of San Juan as bad as she is and as incompetent as she is, Puerto Rico shouldn’t be talking about statehood until they get some people that really know what they’re doing,” Trump said.
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