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For years, State Representative Ryan Guillen of Texas was regarded as the most conservative Democratic legislator in Austin. He was one of just a few from the party to vote in favor of carrying handguns without a permit, and the sole Democrat in the House chamber to vote for the state’s new law banning most abortions. He remained popular in his Rio Grande Valley district, winning re-election last year by 17 percentage points.
Then came the news this month: He was switching parties.
“After much consideration and prayer with my family, I feel that my fiscally conservative, pro-business, and pro-life values are no longer in step with the Democratic Party of today,” Mr. Guillen said.
It’s an old saw in politics: I haven’t changed, the party has changed. And in the past, it has been fairly applied to both Republicans and Democrats. Mr. Guillen has portrayed himself as part of a trend of Hispanic voters moving toward the Republican Party, especially in South Texas, where Donald J. Trump made major inroads during the 2020 election. But it’s too soon to tell just how much of a lasting shift the movement represents.
The Republican Party has been reaching out to Latino voters for decades, particularly in Texas. Former President George W. Bush famously courted them with his “compassionate conservatism.” And it was former President Ronald Reagan who told his Hispanic outreach director that he would have the easiest job in the world, because “Hispanics are already Republicans, they just don’t know it yet.”
Historically, roughly 30 percent of Hispanic voters have chosen to vote Republican in presidential elections, a number that increased slightly in 2020, surprising many Democrats. Republicans, unsurprisingly, celebrated the shift and have portrayed it as a seismic shift that could transform the parties.
“Republicans’ enthusiasm and sense of momentum ebbs and flows, and this is a moment of high enthusiasm,” said Geraldo Cadava, a professor of history at Northwestern University and the author of the book “The Hispanic Republican.” “They want to capitalize on the momentum they feel like they have right now. They really think the energy is on their side, but they have to prove that 2020 wasn’t just a blip.”
So far, the data remains mixed. While there was some dampened enthusiasm among Latino voters during the recall election of Gov. Gavin Newsom of California, for example, an analysis from the Latino Policy & Politics Initiative at the University of California, Los Angeles, showed that Latino-heavy precincts overwhelmingly backed Newsom’s remaining in office.
But in San Antonio this month, Democrats lost another State House seat to a Hispanic Republican, John Lujan.
Now, many Democrats are openly worried, with some calling Hispanics the new swing voter group.
“Democrats have to prove that they can stop their losses, and they have to show these voters they are hearing them and caring about them,” Dr. Cadava said.
Of course, perception can drive reality: If Latinos believe that Democrats take them for granted, they are more likely to vote for Republican candidates, according to analysis from Equis Research, a Washington-based firm that focuses on Latino voters across the country.
Mr. Guillen, who did not respond to several messages from The Times, has fiercely embraced his new party, appearing with Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas during his party switch announcement and welcoming an endorsement from Mr. Trump by enthusiastically recalling how his signs “covered South Texas” during the presidential election. (Four years after Hillary Clinton won the district by 13 percentage points, Mr. Trump won by the same margin in 2020.)
“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,” Mr. Guillen told reporters during his announcement. “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.”
But ideology may not have been the only driver of Mr. Guillen’s decision, which came after Republican-controlled redistricting turned his legislative district from a Republican-leaning district into one that would most likely be solidly red.
Mr. Guillen has brushed aside suggestions that he simply switched parties to stay in office, telling reporters that his 2020 victory as a Democrat showed his allegiance with voters in the district.
“I have found that my core beliefs align with the Republican Party,” he said. “I am confident that my switch today is the right decision.”
Mr. Abbott, for his part, portrayed Mr. Guillen’s flip as inevitable.
“It’s something that has been, candidly, the worst-kept secret in the Capitol,” he said. “Ryan, we’re glad you finally came out of the closet.”
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