New push for Washington, D.C., statehood hits the presidential campaign trail

As Democrats look for ways to overhaul the political system, statehood advocates in the nation's capital see opportunity.
Signs supporting D.C. statehood outside an early voting place on in Washington.Susan Walsh / AP file
By Alex Seitz-Wald

WASHINGTON — A new campaign is hoping to make statehood for the District of Columbia a priority for Democrats in early voting states Iowa and New Hampshire — and a priority for whoever wins the White House in 2020.

With Democrats flirting with radical ideas to reform the political system, one of the most popular is to make Washington, D.C., the 51st state, which would almost certainly give Democrats two more members in the Senate.

D.C. residents, who pay taxes but do not have full representation in Congress, have pushed for statehood for decades, but their struggle is now being picked up by national Democrats looking for an edge in a political system they say disadvantages their party.

The new coalition will launch on Tuesday under the name 51 for 51, highlighting its call to add a 51st state to the union with only 51 votes in the Senate, rather than the 60 votes required to break an expected Republican filibuster.

The group plans to launch a seven-figure public education campaign focused on Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina, the first states to vote next year in the presidential primary, which will include paid advertising, grassroots organizing and sending D.C. residents to the states to make their case.

"This coalition is going to make sure rights of 700,000 D.C. residents don't only matter in D.C. but matter in Iowa, New Hampshire and throughout the presidential election," said Stasha Rhodes, the coalition's campaign manager. "Leaders who support this cause have to do more than say they’ll support it. They have to be ready to go to the mat and fix the broken Senate by approving it with 51 votes."

The coalition includes both local statehood advocates, such as DC Vote, and national groups like Demand Justice, Indivisible and NORML, the marijuana reform organization.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, one of the Democratic presidential candidates, tweeted her support for the effort Monday, saying, "It's time for Washington, DC to have statehood...and we should only need a simple majority to make it happen."

Of course, even a 51-vote threshold would likely require Democrats to retake the Senate in 2020. And some scholars say D.C. statehood would require a constitutional amendment rather than just an act of Congress given its unique status, unlike Puerto Rico where some also are pushing for statehood.

Still, most of the leading 2020 Democratic candidates have already voiced at least some support for D.C. statehood, including all seven senators in the race, who co-sponsored a statehood bill.

And in March, the newly Democratic House approved a sweeping reform bill that included a provision to endorse making D.C. the 51st state — the first time either chamber of Congress has taken that step. The Republican-controlled Senate, however, has made it clear it will not take up the matter.

Over 90 percent of D.C. voters chose Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump in 2016 so it's no surprise Republicans oppose giving the city two senators, even though its population is larger than some states.

D.C. residents and the city government have fought for decades for greater political autonomy.

In 1963, residents won the right to vote in presidential elections. But its sole delegate to Congress can't vote on bills — a fact highlighted by the snarky slogan on Washington license plates: "Taxation without representation."

Congress even meddles in local affairs, using its power over the city's budget to block policies it doesn’t like, such as marijuana legalization, which passed overwhelmingly by referendum in 2014.

Hawaii became the most recent state added to the union in 1959, when both chambers of Congress voted overwhelmingly in favor of admission.

Alex Seitz-Wald

Alex Seitz-Wald is a political reporter for NBC News.