GOP ranks swell with former Dems
It’s the old adage: If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. In the wake of the blowout that unseated almost two dozen of their Democratic colleagues in the House, two Democratic state representatives are playing their own version of “Survivor.”
Allan Ritter of Nederland on Saturday, Dec. 11, put out a statement announcing his switch. And when he held a press conference Tuesday afternoon, Dec. 14, at state GOP headquarters, he was joined by Aaron Pena of Edinburg.
They were welcomed to the Party by state chairman Steve Munisteri, Gov. Rick Perry, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, House Speaker Joe Straus, and about two dozen other Republican legislators and statewide officials.
Apparently, Ritter has concluded that his being unopposed for the last three elections in a Republican leaning district might not continue in 2012 if he stayed with the Democrats.
“In order to best reflect the views of the majority of the people of District 21, I have decided to change my party affiliation. I believe this will allow me to more accurately and effectively represent my constituents while addressing the challenges facing our state.”
Read: “If I do not switch parties, I won’t be announcing anything in Austin after 2012.”
Ritter and Pena have taken the step after the election that former Democratic Rep. Chuck Hopson of Jacksonsville took well before it.
Hopson, who had eked out a victory as a Democrat in 2008, switched parties in early November of 2009 – well before the Jan. 2 filing deadline -- and sought re-election as a Republican. He beat Democrat Richard D. Hackney with more than 75 percent of the vote.
Ritter’s, case even though his move drew the ire of Democratic state chairman Boyd Richie for running as a Democrat and then switching, can be seen as making sense – if he wants to continue making laws. In the 2008 election, Republican presidential candidate John McCain and Republican U.S. Sen. John Cornyn each got 10 more points in Ritter’s Beaumont-area district than their 55 percent statewide.
A conservative, who by his popularity with the district’s business community managed to avoid a Republican challenger in 2010, Ritter certainly realized that his days of survival as a Democrat could be numbered.
That’s particularly true given that GOP landslide, that before Ritter’s switch at least 98 of the 150 House members will be Republicans. He makes it 99.
Pena makes in an even 100, but it soon may go to 101. A special election in the Republican-leaning House District 44 to pick a successor to Republican Edmund Kuempel of Seguin, who died Nov. 4 of a heart attack, is expected to be won by a Republican – possibly Kuempel’s son John.
With 2011 a redistricting year, in which Republicans will be in full control, Ritter figures any chance of preserving his district enough to return for the 2013 legislative session depends on having some leverage when the lines are drawn. That wouldn’t be the case if he remained a Democrat.
But Pena’s switch is puzzling -- bordering on crazy, from the standpoint of continuing to serve after 2012. While he said at the press conference that he plans on seeking re-election as a Republican, his Hidalgo County district is even more lopsidedly Democratic than Ritter’s is Republican.
While McCain and Cornyn got around 65 percent in Ritter’s District 21, in Pena’s District 40, McCain got 22 percent and Cornyn less than 20 percent (against former state Rep. Rick Noriega, whose Spanish surname helped in an 85 percent Hispanic area).
People are probably already lining up to run in the Democratic primary against Pena.
It’s a good thing for Pena, first elected in 2002, that he’s already logged the eight years of House time to qualify for a legislative pension. Because, barring redistricting gerrymandering that would resemble a map of the Phillipine Islands, as a Republican he’ll be in enemy territory.
No Republican has ever been elected in heavily Democratic Hidalgo County.
Decades ago, a lobbyist observed, “You know, about 90 percent of the stuff these guys do down here is aimed at coming back.”
That’s still true, judging by Ritter’s switch. But Pena’s into-the-wind crossover may be the exception that proves the rule.
Both men said anybody who gave them money as a Democrat can have it returned by simply asking.
Both were also asked if they had received any money this election cycle from the Democratic Party. Ritter said it went the other way around, with the Party asking him for money.
How about Pena?
“I would say no,” Pena said. “That’s part of the problem.”
The challenge now for the Republicans is how to cut spending while still maintaining schools, hospitals transportation and other state responsibilities – without enough Democrats to get it done while many Republicans vote against the taxes to fund it.
The second challenge will be to see Republicans draw House districts that can elect 101 Republicans.
Longtime Texas political columnist Dave McNeely, who retired from the Austin American-Statesman in 2004, writes a weekly column on Texas politics for three dozen Texas newspapers. With longtime Dallas journalist and author Jim Henderson, McNeely is the author of “Bob Bullock: God Bless Texas.” Contact him at email@example.com or (512) 458-2963.