State Rep. Ryan Guillen switches to GOP in latest blow to South Texas Democrats

State Rep. Ryan Guillen on the Texas House floor in April. (Evan L'Roy/The Texas Tribune, Evan L'Roy/The Texas Tribune)

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FLORESVILLE — Longtime Democratic state Rep. Ryan Guillen of Rio Grande City is switching parties as Republicans press to make new inroads in South Texas and after redistricting made his district much more favorable to the GOP.

Guillen made the announcement Monday morning at a news conference here where he was joined by Gov. Greg Abbott and House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont.

"Friends, something is happening in South Texas, and many of us are waking up to the fact that the values of those in Washington, D.C., are not our values, not the values of most Texans," Guillen said. "The ideology of defunding the police, of destroying the oil and gas industry and the chaos at our border is disastrous for those of us who live here in South Texas."

Guillen’s decision to run for reelection under the GOP banner is a boon for Republicans who have been working to show new strength in South Texas after President Joe Biden underperformed there in 2020. The decision also comes after the GOP-led redistricting process turned Guillen’s district, already Republican-leaning, into a solidly red one.

The last state lawmaker to change parties was Rep. J.M. Lozano, R-Kingsville, in 2012. He was also a South Texas Democrat who made the decision to join the GOP after redistricting.

Democrats said Guillen was caving to Republicans who redrew his district.

“Republicans cynically gutted Rep. Guillen’s district in the redistricting process, showing complete disrespect for both him and his constituents," the head of the House Democratic Caucus, state Rep. Chris Turner, said in a statement. "Usually, people in Ryan’s position would choose to fight. Instead, he has chosen to join them."

Guillen and Phelan downplayed the role that redistricting played in his decision. He noted that he easily won reelection last year as a Democrat, even though former President Donald Trump also carried his district by a wide margin. And Phelan claimed that GOP discussions with Guillen about switching parties long predated redistricting, calling it the "worst kept secret."

Guillen is already well known as an outlier in his caucus. He is the least liberal Democrat in the House, according to rankings from Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University.

"Everybody has known that Ryan Guillen is really a Republican who is attached to the wrong label," Abbott said at the news conference. "Ryan, we're glad you finally came out of the closet."

Guillen was one of seven House Democrats who voted earlier this year to allow permitless carry of handguns. He was the only House Democrat to vote for the state's new near-total ban on abortion. He stayed behind this summer when most House Democrats fled to Washington, D.C., in protest of Republicans’ priority elections bill. And he was the only Democrat to vote last month for a bill preventing transgender students athletes from playing on teams that correspond with their gender identity.

Guillen, chair of the House Resolutions Calendars Committee, was first elected to the chamber in 2002. He represents House District 31, which is anchored in the Rio Grande Valley and extends north to outside San Antonio.

The district saw a huge swing in the 2020 presidential election. Trump won it by 13 percentage points, four years after Hillary Clinton carried it by the same margin.

Guillen nonetheless won reelection last year by 17 points.

But HD-31 is set to become far more friendly to the GOP next year thanks to redistricting. Under the new map that Abbott signed into law last month, HD-31 transforms into a district that Trump would have won by 25 points.

Guillen did not vote on the new map. He had an excused absence when it came to the House floor, according to the chamber's journal.

Asked about the role redistricting played in his decision, Guillen told reporters that his wide outperformance of Trump as a Democrat shows that his switch is "aligned with our values" and they now "align better with the Republican Party."

Phelan said he "discussed this with Ryan months ago ... before we had any idea what the district would look like." He added that "people have been working on Ryan for several years," trying to get him to join the GOP.

"I don't think redistricting had as much to do with it as people may think," Phelan told reporters.

One Republican, Mike Monreal, has already announced a campaign for HD-31 in 2022. Monreal is a Navy veteran and construction firm executive, and he was critical of Guillen's decision to change parties.

The people of HD-31 "are tired of career politicians and political opportunists who sway with the political winds," Monreal said in a statement after the Floresville announcement. "Why, suddenly, does Mr. Guillen have a change of heart now that the district he currently serves is redrawn to favor a Republican?"

Phelan said Guillen's reelection is his "No. 1 priority," just as important as the speaker's own race.

Phelan and the governor spoke emphatically at the news conference about how they see Guillen's decision as another indicator of changing political currents in predominantly Hispanic South Texas. Earlier this month, the GOP flipped a state House seat on the South Side of San Antonio, and the winner, John Lujan, is set to be sworn into the House on Tuesday.

Disclosure: Rice University has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

Correction, Nov. 16, 2021: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified in one instance Ryan Guillen's state House district as HD-51. Guillen represents HD-31.