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What do Senate runoffs in Georgia have to do with Puerto Rico statehood?

The thinking that statehood for Puerto Rico means more Democrats in Congress is flawed and based on a simplistic view of the politics of Puerto Rico.
Image: Voters cast their ballots for the upcoming presidential elections in Atlanta
Voters cast early ballots for the Nov. 3 elections at State Farm Arena in Atlanta on Oct. 12. The state will vote Jan. 5 in two runoff elections that will determine which party controls the Senate.Chris Aluka Berry / Reuters

As Georgia's GOP Sen. David Perdue was forced into a runoff with Democrat Jon Ossoff, Republicans warned about what is at stake in the coming election: statehood for Puerto Rico.

For those who tuned out after President-elect Joe Biden defeated President Donald Trump, the election frenzy hasn’t stopped. Instead, it has consolidated in Georgia, where future control of the U.S. Senate will be decided.

The state has seen a burst of campaign messaging, spin and rhetoric around incumbents Perdue and Sen. Kelly Loeffler, also a Republican, as they attempt to defeat their respective Democratic challengers, Ossoffand the Rev. Raphael Warnock.

One of the first missives was in a press release from the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the GOP senators’ political arm, with the Puerto Rico warning.

NRSC spokesperson Paige Lindgren stated in the Nov. 11 release that the change Ossoff and Democrats have said they will make is “a path straight to socialism” that “includes extreme ideas like ... statehood for D.C. and Puerto Rico.”

In a Nov. 24 statement, the Republican Party stated: "Ossoff supports statehood for DC and Puerto Rico and is open to ending the filibuster in the Senate," as one of its bullets in a research briefing that was titled "Ossoff and Warnock Are Too Extreme for Georgia."

With those statements, Republicans weren’t taking a stand on Puerto Rico’s longstanding debate over whether the island should maintain its U.S. territory status, become a U.S. state or be wholly independent.

The GOP had already done that in its party platform in 2016 and repeated it in 2020 when it kept the same platform in place. The platform states that Republicans “support the right of the United States citizens of Puerto Rico to be admitted to the Union as a fully sovereign state.”

But for about a year, as Republicans became fearful of losing their majority in the Senate, the statehood of Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia began to be equated with socialism and the Senate majority.

“They plan to make the District of Columbia a state — that would give them two new Democratic senators — Puerto Rico a state, that would give them two more new Democratic senators," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said. "This is full bore socialism on the march in the House."

His office later said his statement was intended to warn about Democratic overreach, but others continue to equate the two.

Lindgren, of the NRSC, did not respond to emails requesting comment.

Democrats have said that with the majority, they would push for self-determination for Puerto Rico. A bill on Puerto Rico's status introduced by Democratic Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Nydia Velázquez drew backlash, reflecting the issue's complexity and the grueling debate that can accompany it.

Last month’s elections have left the Senate split 48-50 between Democrats and Republicans, respectively, making it possible for Democrats to gain control by winning both of Georgia’s Senate runoffs. Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, a Democrat, has the tie-breaking vote.

Puerto Rico status 'not a partisan casino chip'

The thinking that statehood for Puerto Rico means more Democrats is flawed. The politics of Puerto Rico are shaped in a large way by the question of whether the territory should continue in that status, push to become a state or become an independent nation. Puerto Ricans don't split their views on the issue based on the politics of the mainland's main parties.

Puerto Rico’s recently re-elected nonvoting resident commissioner in Congress, Del. Jenniffer González-Colón, is a Republican and one of the chairs of Latinos for Trump. She's also one of the island's most visible pro-statehood proponents.

Pedro Pierluisi, who was elected Puerto Rico’s governor, is a Democrat, but like González-Colón, he's a member of the New Progressive Party, which supports statehood.

Federico de Jesús — a Democratic consultant, principal of FDJ Solutions and a Puerto Rico native — expressed anger that Puerto Rico’s future status has been dragged into the partisan wrestling for control of the Senate.

“We are talking about the human rights of people, not a partisan casino chip,” de Jesús said. Making it a talking point in the runoffs "is self-interest by both political parties in the U.S. and an underlying mindset that still perpetuates colonial treatment of Puerto Rico."

A few Georgia officials and activists said they hadn’t heard or seen any ads on Puerto Rico statehood surrounding the runoffs and were a bit puzzled by the connection of it to socialism.

Rep. Pedro “Pete” Marin, D-Duluth, one of the first Latinos to serve in Georgia’s General Assembly and a Puerto Rico native, first heard it when asked by a reporter. "It bothers me to be portrayed like that, like pawns," said Marin, who was elected in 2002. "It’s kind of a pingpong ball; let’s use this as a wedge issue."

There are more important issues that should be at the forefront as Georgians decide who should represent them in the Senate, Marin said.

“The response to Covid, that’s the most pressing issue we are facing right now as Americans,” Marin said.

There are about 97,000 Puerto Ricans in Georgia, Marin said. This include families who relocated to the state after Hurricane Maria struck in 2017. The overall Latino population in Georgia numbers about 1 million, and the largest Latino subgroup is people of Mexican descent.

For the record, Ossoff supports Puerto Rican statehood and has said Puerto Ricans should have full rights like any other citizen, said Miryam Lipper, Ossoff's communications director. Perdue’s campaign office did not respond to requests for comment, but Perdue did issue a warning similar to the NRSC's about Puerto Rico statehood happening should Democrats win control of the Senate, CNN reported.

Warnock addressed the Republicans' messaging in an interview posted online. "I think that they are trying to divide us, again," Warnock said. Loeffler's campaign did not respond to requests for comment.

Daniel Garza, president of the center-right organization LIBRE Initiative and its political arm, said his group is in Georgia to turn out Latino voters for Perdue. But he said the group has no plans to mention Puerto Rico in their efforts.

Garza said he’d push back on the idea that Puerto Rico statehood is socialism, which he said means the government takeover of the means of production and expansion of big government.

An appeal to white voters?

Republicans aren’t unaware of the bipartisan Puerto Rican support for statehood and their importance to the party.

Bernard Fraga, a political science associate professor at Emory University in Atlanta, thinks the warning on statehood is part of Republicans' broader narrative to motivate white voters.

In general, Republicans are warning that if Democrats take control of the Senate, they’ll enact an agenda favored by the left wing of the party and find ways to enhance power, Fraga said, including adding more justices to the Supreme Court and expanding Congress through Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C.

“It’s an appeal to moderate and conservative white voters who did not support Trump in the general election to bring in those folks and make sure they vote Republican in the runoff,” Fraga said.

Ian Haney López, author of several books on race and politics, said that by raising the issue of Puerto Rico statehood in the context of socialism, Republicans are “telling a story of people who belong, people who are white, under threat from people who are dark and taking over," as they did during the general election.

“The deal with socialism is that socialism is a word that connotes something that’s extreme and un-American,” Haney López said. “What is it that’s un-American, in terms of the particular policies that have been advanced by the Democrats or even by progressive Democrats? How are they different, for instance, from Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty or Franklin Delano Roosevelt?”

When those questions are asked, “the whole idea that these are extreme collapses,” he said.

The term "socialism," used in the case of Puerto Rico statehood or in other instances, becomes a “scare word,” Haney López said, “that implies that somebody is extremely non-American.”

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