Republicans Once Supported Puerto Rico Statehood. Now They Openly Oppose It.

That shift spells political doom for annexation and should strengthen support for independence.

This week, Puerto Rico’s outgoing pro-statehood governor announced that the island will hold another non-binding status plebiscite this November. It will be the seventh such vote in Puerto Rico’s history and the fourth since 2012.

It’s always meaningful for Puerto Ricans to share our views on our desired political future, but it’s clear that the plebiscite is an electoral ploy from the pro-statehood New Progressive (PNP) Party, which has historically used these votes to mobilize their base on Election Day. This year, with a pro-Trump (and pro-statehood) gubernatorial candidate on the ballot and a united progressive opposition mounting a major challenge, the PNP needs to play that card more than ever.

Yet even if statehood wins a plurality or slim majority of the plebiscite vote, any push for annexation will run into the brick wall of American politics. Congress has outright refused to make Puerto Rico a state for more than a century. It has never made any Puerto Rican plebiscite binding. For decades, Democrats and Republicans have largely ignored the status question.

To echo what many Puerto Ricans have said, maintaining the island’s current colonial status has solid bipartisan backing. For too long, we have heard the same mostly parroted talking points about how it’s “up to Puerto Ricans” and that Congress and Presidents should “respect the will of the people.”

Still, it was often seen as good politics to signal some support for Puerto Rican statehood , especially around election time to curry favor with boricua voters. That was even true among Republicans: past presidents like Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford said they backed statehood, and it was once part of the GOP’s party platform.

In recent years, however, there has been a drastic and consequential change. Republicans are now transparently, explicitly and intensely hostile to Puerto Rican statehood.

The latest example happened just weeks ago. At a campaign event for Pennsylvania Senate candidate Dave McCormick, Iowa Senator Joni Ernst (R-IA) warned the crowd that Democratic control of Congress would mean Puerto Rican statehood. In April, McCormick himself had mentioned statehood as an untenable outcome of Democratic victories.

Other recent instances of Republicans railing against Puerto Rican statehood are even more notable:

  • In 2019, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell called Puerto Rican statehood “full-bore socialism.”

  • In 2022, Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-AL) said he was against statehood because he didn’t want Puerto Ricans to have “the same voting rights and stuff.”

  • Later that year, while stumping for Senate candidate Herschel Walker, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) railed against statehood to a raucous Georgia crowd. He repeated the talking point a few months later on X/Twitter during the infamous 2023 battle for Speaker of the House.

  • And earlier this year Donald Trump released a GOP primary attack ad against Ron DeSantis accusing him of “siding with the liberals” by supporting Puerto Rican statehood. DeSantis, for his part, made it clear he wouldn’t support statehood.

That last example is the most telling — and the most damning.

First, it’s abundantly clear that the GOP is Donald Trump’s party. If Trump is against Puerto Rican statehood (and he most certainly is), that is the de facto Republican position.

Second, Florida politicians like DeSantis had traditionally embraced statehood because it curried favor with the state’s Puerto Rican electorate, but now DeSantis had to disavow it in the middle of a national Republican campaign.

That opposition has had predictable consequences in Congress. The 2021 Puerto Rico Statehood Admission Act did not have a single Republican cosponsor in the Senate — not even Florida Republican Senators Rick Scott (he changed his mind in 2022) or Marco Rubio (in 2018).

This year’s Puerto Rico Status Act has no Senate Republican cosponsors either, and the House version is going nowhere, thanks to Republican Rep. Bruce Westerman.

Puerto Rican statehood has always been politically implausible, but this newly rampant, raging Republican resistance has downgraded it to practically impossible. At this point, believing that statehood could get 60 votes in the Senate requires belief that the GOP will abandon Trumpism and give up the politics of obstructionism, racial resentment and hyper-partisanship.

I wouldn’t make that bet.

And Americans shouldn’t wager Puerto Rico’s political future on it.

Twenty-one days from today, July 4, the United States’ colonial rule over Puerto Rico will turn 126 years old. We’re long past time for willful ignorance or wishful thinking about the political prospects of statehood, which will only prolong the undemocratic status quo for decades. It’s time for Americans to grapple with their own nation’s political reality when they consider what should become of the nation they once invaded.

If Puerto Rico’s colonial status is unacceptable (it is), and statehood remains far out of reach (it does), that necessarily means supporting the only alternative: independence.

About the Author

Alberto C. Medina is a Puerto Rico-born, now U.S.-based writer, editor, and advocate for Puerto Rican independence. He is the president of Boricuas Unidos en la Diáspora (BUDPR), a network of Puerto Ricans in the United States who educate and organize for decolonization and sovereignty. Follow him on X/Twitter at @AlbertoMedinaPR.

The Latino Newsletter welcomes opinion pieces in English and/or Spanish from community voices. You can email them to our publisher, Julio Ricardo Varela. The views expressed by outside opinion contributors do not necessarily reflect the editorial views of this outlet.

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