FLORESVILLE — Inside a coffee shop that was newly annexed into his state house district following the newly redrawn district maps, state Rep. Ryan Guillen announced he was dropping his long-held label as a Democrat and was running for reelection for District 31 as a Republican.
Alongside Gov. Greg Abbott and Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan, Guillen said he had long identified with conservative values and looked forward to no longer having to break with his party to vote in line with his beliefs.
“As a six-generation South Texas rancher, I picked up my conservative values from my parents and from my grandparents, growing up on a ranch where I worked as a ranch hand and at our family feed store where I worked to help my family make ends meet,” Guillen said.
But living in South Texas, he also grew up among Democrats, he said, and ran for office as a Democrat including last year when he won reelection by a 17-point margin.
“But 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, are not the values of most Texans, certainly not the values of South Texas,” Guillen said.
“The ideology of defunding the police, of destroying the oil and gas industry and the chaos in our border is disastrous for those of us who live here in South Texas,” he continued. “That’s why after much thought and much prayer with my family, today I’m announcing that I’ll proudly be running as a Republican to represent House District 31.”
District 31, which encompasses all of Starr County including his hometown of Rio Grande City, was redistricted to no longer include Willacy County, a rural county in the Rio Grande Valley that has typically voted for Democrats, and Atascosa County, a typically Republican County. Redistricting also added two more Republican counties — Karnes and Wilson, where Guillen held his announcement Monday.
His former fellow Democrats did not take the news well.
Texas House Democratic Caucus Chair Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, said republicans “cynically gutted” Guillen’s district and showed “complete disrespect” for him and his constituents.
“Usually, people in Ryan’s position would choose to fight. Instead, he has chosen to join them,” Turner said in a news release Monday. “Rep. Guillen probably doesn’t believe the Republican talking points he is repeating today, but he thinks they may help him get elected again.”
He further noted that Guillen has supported many key Democratic priorities, such as Medicaid expansion, while also opposing the ‘election integrity’ bill.
“It will be interesting to see how he explains his voting record to his new party, given Republicans’ hostility to affordable health care and the freedom to vote,” Turner said.
Phelan, however, defended Guillen and said redistricting did not play as big of a role in his decision as people might think.
“I discussed this with Ryan months ago, as soon as session was over, early this summer, before Census numbers came out, before we had any idea what the districts would look like,” Phelan said. “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.”
Guillen acknowledged that he’d won reelection as a Democrat while former President Donald J. Trump also won the district by 13 points.
“I think that’s indicative of the fact that what we’re doing here is doing what is aligned with our values,” he said. “Values that I hold dear, that I’ve always held dear, align better with the Republican Party and that’s what we’re doing here.”
Abbott welcomed Guillen to the party and boasted his switch as a part of a larger movement within Texas to favor Republicans.
“This is something that has been a movement that’s taken place for a decade for now and is something that has been, candidly, the worst kept secret in the Capitol,” Abbott said.
“Everybody has known that Ryan Guillen is really a Republican that is attached to the wrong label,” he added. “Ryan, we’re glad you finally came out of the closet.”
Following the announcement, when asked what prompted his decision, Guillen said it just felt like the right time. He also said he was confident that voters in Starr County, who elected him as a Democrat, would continue to support him.
“I’m from Starr County and so I’m very confident that my family, my friends, my neighbors will be greatly supportive of whatever we do,” Guillen said. “I think that they understand that we’re working hard for them and I think that they’re going to continue to support me.”
Starr County Democratic Chair Hilda Gonzalez Garza is not sure Guillen will be able to count on those votes.
In her opinion, the former Democrat will face a tough battle in getting past the primary elections because voters in Texas can only vote in either the Democratic primary or the Republican, not both.
He is already facing a contested primary race with the campaign launch of Mike Monreal, a retired Navy captain, who announced his run for the Republican nomination on Saturday.
With several contested local races in the Starr County Democratic Primary, Gonzalez Garza thinks it’s unlikely that Starr County voters will choose to vote in the Republican Primary just for his race.
“Let’s assume you have 80% of the people here that vote Democratic, they have to understand that if they vote Democratic, they cannot vote for Ryan Guillen as a Republican,” she said. “So even though he’s indicating that it’s Starr County that helped him win the last time, it might be Starr County that now will help him lose because of the fact that we have all of the local contested elections here.”