Analysis: Could Texas Lawmaker’s Defection Strengthen the GOP Center?
Politicians like Texas State Rep. Ryan Guillen are increasingly without a political home.
Texas Republicans today celebrated the defection of State Representative Ryan Guillen, a conservative Democrat from Rio Grande City who will now run for reelection as a Republican.
Guillen said, “I feel that my fiscally conservative, pro-business, and pro-life values are no longer in step with the Democratic Party of today.” His announcement came after weeks of talks with Texas GOP Chairman Matt Rinaldi, Speaker Dade Phelan, and Governor Greg Abbott.
For Republican strategists and leaders, Guillen’s defection validates an aggressive, take-no-prisoners effort to capture the Rio Grande Valley, an historic Democrat stronghold that’s increasingly trending red. Abbott said, “Representative Guillen’s decision to switch parties is indicative of a shifting landscape in South Texas.”
On the other hand, Democrats are casting Guillen’s party switch as a cynical move that amounts to little more than a ploy for political survival. Guillen, who has held office since 2003, faced a tough reelection fight after redistricting made his seat significantly more conservative. House District 31 went for Hillary Clinton in 2016 by 13 percentage points but flipped to Donald Trump in 2020 by the same margin.
Chris Turner, head of the Democratic Caucus in the Texas House of Representatives, commented, “Republicans cynically gutted Rep. Guillen’s district in the redistricting process, showing complete disrespect for him and his constituents. Usually, people in Ryan’s position would choose to fight. Instead, he has chosen to join them.”
“Rep. Guillen probably doesn’t believe the Republican talking points he is repeating today, but he thinks they may help him get elected again.”
Speaker Dade Phelan (R-Beaumont), appearing alongside Guillen at a press conference, rejected that narrative, saying, “I discussed this with Ryan months ago, as soon as (regular) session was over, early this summer, before census numbers came out, before we had any idea what the districts would look like, we discussed this.”
“People have been working on Ryan for several years. It’s the worst kept secret in Austin that folks have been trying to get Ryan to come over to the Republican Party. So I don’t think redistricting had much to do with it.”
Whatever Guillen’s motives, his defection is the second setback for Democrats in South Texas this month. In a San Antonio special runoff election for state house, Democrat Frank Ramirez lost to Republican John Lujan, 51.2% to 48.8%. The race was viewed by some observers as a bellwether for South Texas in 2022. Also, just over a week ago, conservative Democrat Eddie Lucio, Jr of Brownsville announced he would not seek reelection.
These developments raise questions about the future of the Democratic Party in South Texas.
But Guillen’s defection also raises questions about the future of the Republican Party, and whether a politician like Guillen can really find a place in it. Guillen’s voting record is significantly more liberal than every other Republican in the Texas House, according to an analysis of roll call votes by Rice University political scientist Mark P. Jones.
Republican politicians today glossed over that fact, focusing instead on welcoming the former Democrat. GOP Chairman Matt Rinaldo pointed to common ground on guns and abortion, saying Guillen “has been a strong Pro-Life advocate… (and) also has a strong record of Second Amendment support.”
Likewise, Guillen himself pointed to alignment with Republicans on policing, immigration, and economic policy, according his written announcement and remarks to the press in Floresville. He said, “The values of the Washington D.C. Democrats are not those of HD-31 and not those of most Texans. The ideology of defunding the police, destroying the oil and gas industry, and opening our border has disastrous consequences for those of us who live in south Texas.”
“After years of voting against tax increases, in favor of protecting Texas families, and in favor of border security funding, I have found that my core believes align with the Republican Party.”
“The ideology of… opening our borders has disastrous consequences for those of us who live in south Texas.” — Rep. Ryan Guillen, former Democrat
But on other issues, Guillen sits uneasily with his new party, particularly the more combative, Trumpian wing of it. In every legislative session from 2007 to 2019, Guillen got an “F” on the scorecard published by Empower Texans, the far-right organization that played an outsized role in Texas Republican primaries for a decade. Among the marks against him: he voted for a recycling education program, supported increased funding for public schools and more mental health resources in schools, and voted to expand Medicaid eligibly for women after pregnancy.
In August, Guillen voted against the Republican election bill, SB 1, even though he hadn’t joined fellow Democrats in breaking quorum earlier in the summer. Only one Republican voted against that bill, Rep. Lyle Larson of San Antonio, who has announced his retirement. Turner drew attention to Guillen’s record in his statement, saying, “He has supported many key Democratic priorities, such as Medicaid expansion and investments in public education, while also opposing the so-called ‘election integrity’ bill. It will be interesting to see how he explains his voting record to his new party.”
The first test of Guillen’s standing in his new party will come in March 2022, in the Republican primary. He’ll face Mike Monreal, a Navy veteran and construction firm executive, who had already announced his campaign for HD-31 prior to Guillen’s announcement.
Heading into the primary, Guillen has the disadvantage of a 19-year record as an elected Democrat. But he’s also well-connected in the district, having handily won it in the 2020 general election 58.4% to 41.6%. He’ll have outside support from the state’s top Republican leaders, including Speaker Dade Phelan, who said this morning he’ll make Guillen’s reelection his “number one priority.”
If Guillen wins reelection, he’ll be the most liberal Republican serving in the Texas House, taking that mantle from Larson, a Trump critic who has announced that he won’t seek reelection. That could bring some fresh blood to the increasingly diminishing centrist wing of the Texas GOP, which is losing not only Larson but also Kel Seliger, the only Republican senator to vote against a Trump-backed bill to audit the 2020 election results.
How long will the honeymoon last? Some of the same politicians backing Guillen today could turn on him in the next cycle. Rinaldi, in particular, has previously fiercely criticized more centrist members of the Republican Party and advocated for a more muscular, combative political strategy. It’s worth noting, too, that while Abbott today welcomed Guillen with open arms, he campaigned aggressively (and unsuccessfully) against Larson in 2018, calling him “Liberal Lyle.”
Perhaps the real lesson in Guillen’s defection is that politicians like him are increasingly without a real political home. Yet the veteran legislator was used to being an outlier in the Democratic Caucus, so he could play the same role in the Republican Caucus.
On a newly revamped campaign website, Guillen appeals to a distinctive South Texas identity and his roots in the district. In a brief biographical section, he refers to himself as a “hardworking Republican” but otherwise makes no reference to partisan politics or his past as a Democrat.
The biography says, “Representative Ryan Guillen is a 6th generation South Texas rancher and small businessman who learned the value of hard work while helping his family make ends meet as a ranch hand on the family farm. At age 21, Ryan’s mother and step-dad, both school teachers, were tragically killed in a car accident which led Ryan to dedicate his life to serving others.”
“As our State Representative, Ryan has built a reputation as one of the most responsive and available legislators in the Texas House. He has been a staunch advocate for South Texas and our traditional, common sense values, fighting to cut taxes and red tape that hurt our economy, strengthening schools, supporting our veterans and first responders, securing the border and cracking down on crime to keep our families safe.
“Ryan and his wife Dalinda are proud parents of two young daughters, Cinco Demi, and Viva Bonita.”
Originally published at https://www.honestaustin.com on November 15, 2021.