The now-former Democrat, who’s served in the Texas House since 2003, announced the party affiliation switch in Floresville, the Wilson County seat on Monday morning.
“Something is happening in South Texas. Many of us are waking up to the fact that the values in Washington D.C. are not our values in South Texas,” Guillen said at the announcement. “I’m proud to continue voting the way I have and not doing so against my party.”
Guillen was flanked by some of the state’s top Republican officials such as Governor Greg Abbott, Speaker Dade Phelan (R-Beaumont), and Texas GOP Chairman Matt Rinaldi.
For four out of the last five legislative sessions, Guillen was rated the most conservative Democrat in the Texas House — in the fifth, he was ranked the second-most conservative.
Guillen was the only House Democrat to vote for the Texas Heartbeat Act and was one of only a few to vote for the constitutional carry bill. He remained neutral on the GOP-backed election reform bill — marked as absent — but did not participate in either of the Democratic quorum breaks aimed at killing that legislation.
“Rep. Guillen has been a friend for many years, and I am proud to welcome him to the Republican Party,” an official statement from Rinaldi read.
“Following this month’s Republican victories in Virginia and in Texas HD 118, this is yet another example of how the increasing extremism of the Democratic Party has alienated Texans who care about smaller government, strong families, safe communities, and the protection of the unborn. Those people have a home in our party.”
Texas House Democratic Caucus Chairman Chris Turner (D-Grand Prairie) cited redistricting as a contributing factor and criticized Guillen’s move in a statement.
“Republicans cynically gutted Rep. Guillen’s district in the redistricting process, showing complete disrespect for both him and his constituents,” said Turner. “Usually, people in Ryan’s position would choose to fight. Instead, he has chosen to join them.”
Guillen’s switch had been speculated for much of this year, along with speculation surrounding Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr. (D-Brownsville) — another pro-life Democrat from the Rio Grande Valley. Lucio ultimately announced his retirement.
In an interview with The Texan, Rinaldi said the conversation about Guillen’s switch accelerated at an October 2 event in Corpus Christi during which he reconnected with Aaron Peña — a former Texas House member from Hidalgo County who switched parties back in 2010 and is now running for the 13th Court of Appeals.
The topic of Guillen’s mulling of a party switch was raised and Peña, a friend of the representative, called him up and broached the issue with the GOP party chair and Democratic legislator.
Peña said he had half-joked for years with Guillen about making the switch from a party he views as increasingly hostile to conservative border Democrats. When he converted a decade ago, Peña said the “liberal Austin elites and their acolytes in the party structure were extremely hostile” but that his community didn’t bat an eye.
The press conference made clear that Guillen would be welcomed with open arms by his new GOP colleagues. According to Rinaldi, Guillen had been worried about how he’d be received by the conservative wing of the GOP. For the better part of a month, Rinaldi, a former Texas Freedom Caucus member during his time in the House, assuaged those concerns by serving as the intermediary on Guillen’s behalf.
“Ryan’s going to be embraced by conservatives because he’s a man of principle and he’s been a conservative for so long in a party where it’s been very difficult to do so,” Rinaldi said. He added that it didn’t take much smoothing over at all for Guillen’s party switch to be supported by the various groups and officials occupying the grassroots flank of the GOP.
The most obvious explanation for Guillen’s shift is the outcome of redistricting. According to The Texan’s Texas Partisan Index, Guillen’s House District 31 went from a D-51% makeup to R-57% — a swing from a narrow Democratic advantage to a sizable GOP one.
But there is a more existential shift occurring in Guillen’s neck of the woods.
Of the 10 counties across the country with the largest GOP swing from 2016 to 2020, nine are in Texas. Each of those nine is in South Texas and three are in the Rio Grande Valley.
Four of them — Brooks, Duval, Jim Hogg, and Starr — are in the newly-drawn House District 31.
But three counties, including Wilson, the second-largest county in the district behind Starr County, are new to Guillen’s district.
Earlier this year, the City of McAllen elected a Republican mayor for the first time in years.
The massive shift toward Republicans within South Texas in 2020 is something Peña has seen developing for a while.
“This last presidential cycle unmoored things,” Peña said.
“But the Democratic Party has been doing this to themselves,” he argued, by making no room in their midst for pro-life or pro-Second Amendment positions. Across the nation, the Democratic Party is facing attempted internal cullings of moderate members. Not all have succeeded, but enough have been tried to illustrate a trend.
Famously, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez upset a longtime incumbent whose politics were nowhere near her self-described socialist status. In Texas last year, Congressman Henry Cuellar (D-TX-28) from Laredo staved off an Ocasio-Cortez-endorsed progressive challenger — a challenge that is set for a rematch in 2022.
But those in South Texas, Peña contends, are conservative in nature if not yet in partisanship — growing up around guns and hunting often, strongly religious and disapproving of abortion, and friendlier toward border security. Each of those positions finds less and less room in the Democratic Party every year.
And so, like in Guillen’s case, more South Texans are finding a home in the GOP. Peña emphasized the border issue even further, denouncing the Biden administration’s handling of recent events like the one that occurred recently in Del Rio where thousands of Haitian migrants crossed the border illegally, overwhelming U.S. Border Patrol and Texas National Guardsmen.
Peña added that the increasing hostility within the Democratic Party toward border patrol and law enforcement is a driving wedge between South Texans and the party to which they have so long belonged.
South Texas is by no means a GOP stronghold. But a sizable window of opportunity exists for Republicans — one they’ve already begun to capitalize on.
“[Guillen’s switch] serves as an example to other Democratic representatives in areas like his, who might not be very far left, that there is a potential home for you in the Republican Party,” said Rinaldi.
The last three Texas GOP chairs — James Dickey, Allen West, and now Rinaldi — have each emphasized the importance of South Texas for the future of their party. And if the suburbs, historically a GOP stronghold, slip further out of their grasp, the shift in South Texas will become even more pivotal.
Guillen and Peña are not the only defectors from the Democratic Party. In 2012, state Rep. J.M. Lozano (R-Kingsville), also from South Texas, made the switch after redistricting and continues to represent his area in the legislature.
Going forward, Peña projects more GOP elected officials will populate the city halls of the Rio Grande Valley and occupy more seats in the Texas legislature.
The road to re-election for Guillen from here isn’t all smooth sailing. He had already drawn a GOP challenger, Navy veteran Michael Monreal from Floresville. Reached by phone on Sunday, Monreal made it clear he had no intention of moving aside and is looking forward to a primary against Guillen.
“I am a conservative by conscience and not by convenience and it seems very convenient that [Guillen’s] flipping sides at a time when you see the numbers are stacked against the Democratic Party,” Monreal said. “You’re going to see in the coming days, the ‘establishment’ is already looking at others. I am not part of that group. I don’t want to be part of that group.”
As a matter of policy, the Texas GOP will stay out of all primaries. Guillen has his work cut out for him between now and the primary election date. His longtime incumbency curries a lot of name recognition and respect in the area. But a GOP primary race is not like anything Guillen’s been through before.
Peña posited that for more disaffected Democrats in South Texas to opt for a switch, it’s paramount that Guillen, and others like him, can win support in their new party and survive primary challenges. “If J.M. Lozano had switched and lost his primary, that’d have sent a bad signal,” he said. “And likewise, if Ryan Guillen switches and loses, that’s going to be a bad signal.”
But now that process begins for Guillen — a campaign like the many others he’s run during his time in office, but one of a new stripe.
“It’s like a courtship; people have to get to know you and have to get to trust you,” Peña said. “But this election is going to happen really quickly, so I hope he has enough time to do that.”
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Brad Johnson is a senior reporter for The Texan and an Ohio native who graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 2017. He is an avid sports fan who most enjoys watching his favorite teams continue their title drought throughout his cognizant lifetime. In his free time, you may find Brad quoting Monty Python productions and trying to calculate the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow.