U.S. Capitol Building
U.S. Capitol. Photo by Darrow Montgomery.

“If Schumer-Pelosi Democrats get their way, statehood for the D.C. Swamp will become a reality,” a mailer Kentucky voters recently received reads. “Put Kentucky first—and the D.C. swamp last—by keeping Amy McGrath out of the U.S. Senate.”

The mailer, paid for by the Republican Party of Kentucky, warns against electing McGrath, the Democratic U.S. Senate candidate, over Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, lest D.C. become America’s 51st state. Giving the District’s 705,000 residents voting representation, along with full budget and legislative autonomy, guarantees “the ‘swamp’ two socialist senators” and “abortion on demand,” according to the mailer. (While it is unlikely D.C. residents would elect a socialist to Congress, seeing as it only elected a Democratic Socialist once to citywide office, D.C. voters would likely elect a pro-choice Democrat.)

The Republican Party of Kentucky declined to answer this reporter’s questions about the mailer, including how many households it was sent to or if it was the first to mention D.C. statehood. But a mailer like this is rare, if not unprecedented. A number of statehood advocates cannot recall another election cycle during which an individual running for political office outside the D.C. region campaigned against the prospect of statehood.

Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, for one, is not too concerned about a GOP mailer disparaging D.C. this way. “They won’t pay much attention to that ad because they won’t know what to make of it,” she says of Kentuckians. “Most people have no idea about D.C. statehood … most people, when they see me on the floor, just think D.C. is like everybody else.”

D.C. statehood has become a talking point in high-profile Senate races, with Republicans choosing to broach the subject. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, for example, claimed that statehood “dilutes [South Carolina’s] influence in the Senate” at a press conference dedicated to statehood that also featured appearances from Senator Steve Daines of Montana and Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas. Graham’s Democratic challenger, Jaime Harrison, responded by saying Graham’s political games distract from issues that directly impact their constituents. Their fight over statehood caught the attention of the local ABC affiliate.

An increasing number of Republicans are spending more time bad mouthing statehood, and a few have also introduced legislation to undermine the issue. Republican Representatives Morgan Griffith of Virginia, Dusty Johnson of South Dakota, and Mark Walker of North Carolina introduced separate bills over the last few weeks that would undermine statehood. Griffith and Johnson’s bills would return parts of D.C. to Maryland. These bills are the first legislative push for retrocession, a topic only ever really discussed by a longshot candidate looking to oust Norton. Polling shows that retrocession remains widely unpopular among D.C. and Maryland residents alike. According to a April 2016 poll of 879 Maryland voters, the most recent polling available, only 28 percent of respondents supported annexing D.C. while 44 percent opposed it.

“I believe the Constitution is clear that the District of Columbia was not [to] be a state, but I also understand the concerns of D.C. residents about taxation and their representation. The challenge is to meet these concerns in a constitutional way,” Griffith says. “My bill follows the precedent set when Virginia received back the portion of land it had ceded to D.C. Returning the land to Maryland would provide D.C. residents with representation in Congress consistent with the Constitution.”

Johnson introduced his bill because it “concerns the entire country, not just Washington.” “This issue, as is often the case, has partisans on both sides that seem interested in the political fight,” Johnson tells City Paper via email. “I’m more interested in finding common ground that will serve the best interests of both D.C. residents and our nation as a whole. I’ll keep working toward a solution by listening and discussing this issue.”

Walker’s bill proposes a constitutional amendment that would restrict the number of Senators to its current level of 100, ensuring no new states could acquire Senate representation. The bill is clearly a dig at D.C. statehood. He made that clear in an opinion piece published in The Hill.

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None of the representatives reached out to Norton to get her thoughts on their bills even though she represents D.C. This doesn’t surprise her. She views the bills as further proof of Republicans being nervous about her statehood bill, H.R. 51.

“It is a new level of distraction and opposition to statehood, which isn’t surprising,” says Bo Shuff, the executive director of DC Vote, an advocacy group that has historically fought for voting representation and in recent years statehood. “Every action has an equal and opposite reaction.”

Republicans feel the need to fight against D.C. statehood because of the momentum it is gaining nationally, advocates argue. In 2019, Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer made statehood a top Democratic priority for the first time. Former President Barack Obama used one of his few large public appearances to advocate for statehood earlier
this summer.

“Once we pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, we should keep marching to make it even better,” Obama said in his July eulogy for the late Georgia congressman. “By guaranteeing that every American citizen has equal representation in our government, including the American citizens who live in Washington, D.C. and in Puerto Rico. They are Americans.”

D.C. is closer to becoming a state now than it ever has been. A historic moment came June 26, when the House of Representatives voted 232 to 180 to grant statehood to D.C., where residents pay federal taxes but have no vote in Congress. It was the first time either chamber of Congress passed statehood legislation in the District’s 230-year history.

Now that decades-long efforts to make D.C. a state are beginning to materialize, statehood advocates argue that Republicans are falling back on old arguments.

“Most of the people around the country just have a negative perception of the District of Columbia simply because politicians always bash D.C. and they lump the people of D.C. with the legislators that were sent here by the people of America,” says Josh Burch, founder of Neighbors United for DC Statehood, a grassroots organization that has always fought for statehood. “Because of that perception that I think both parties have played into, the Republican Party right now is trying to use … what is perceived as the District of Columbia in their own races to their own benefit.”

“They are afraid of us becoming a state because of the number of African Americans that live in the District, the number of people that vote Democratic in the District, the number of people who support pro democracy, a liberal agenda,” he continues.

Statehood advocates recognize that an ordinary voter from Iowa or Idaho might not know enough about D.C. to support statehood, so they have a lot of educating to do. There is a misconception that the city is only made up of federal properties, politicians, and lobbyists. A new campaign called #WeAreDC aspires to elevate the eclectic residents of D.C., from the teachers to the go-go artists. “We were frustrated by the repeated slander of Republicans,” 51 for 51 Campaign Director Stasha Rhodes told City Paper when the campaign launched in August. 51 for 51 is a newer statehood advocacy group fighting to change Senate rules so D.C. could gain statehood with just 51 affirmative votes as opposed to the 60 currently required. DC Vote polling also shows that once individuals hear both sides of the argument, they are more likely to support making D.C. a state.

Statehood advocates are simultaneously trying to get McGrath and Harrison elected. While not not every Democrat running in a competitive race this election cycle has publicly expressed their support for statehood, advocates recognize they have a better shot at enfranchising the residents of D.C. with Democrats in control of the White House and Congress.

“I’d rather align myself with the party that supports D.C. statehood than the party that utterly opposes it,” says Burch.

Volunteers at Neighbors United have been encouraging D.C. residents to donate to Democrats running in close Senate contests. Burch personally has written postcards to voters in North Carolina, the site of a competitive Senate race, as well as to voters in Florida and Ohio to encourage individuals to vote for Joe Biden. Biden after all supports making D.C. a state with just 51 Senate votes.

This article incorrectly stated that D.C. has never elected a Democratic Socialist to citywide office. But Hilda Mason, a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, served in the Council for more than 20 years. The article has been corrected.