Bush dynasty, its influence fading, hopes for a last stand in Texas

ARGYLE, Texas — His famous name casts a shadow over George P. Bush, the only member of the dynastic political clan now in public office, as he enters the final days of an uphill campaign to unseat the Texas attorney general.

For some Texans, the Bush name is a badge of integrity that harkens back to a bygone era of rectitude and respectful political debate. For others, it is the disqualifying brand of an old Republican guard who failed the party and betrayed its last president, Donald J. Trump.

Bush would like to campaign on two-term Republican incumbent Ken Paxton, whose serious legal troubles, including an indictment on securities fraud charges and an ongoing federal corruption investigation, have led high-profile Republicans to confront him in the primary. Bush reached a runoff with Paxton that takes place on Tuesday.

A few years ago, Bush, whose mother is from Mexico and whose father was governor of Florida, could have easily won the race, aides believe, and then been held up as a leading example of a new and more diverse generation. of republicans

But that was before the ground changed and his family spoke out publicly against Trump, in a failed attempt to derail his presidential bid.

Bush broke with his father (Jeb), his uncle (George W.), and his grandfather (George HW) and aligned himself with Trump and his supporters. The effort to distance himself from his relatives was embodied in a koozie campaign beer that his campaign delivered last year, quoting Trump: “This is the Bush that got it right. I like it,” he says, below a line drawing of Trump shaking hands with Bush.

The effort did not bear fruit. Trump endorsed Paxton, who had filed lawsuits to overturn the 2020 election and had appeared with Trump at his rally in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021, before the crowd stormed the Capitol.

Some Texans say the political obituary has already been written for the Bush family, and they see Bush, now the state’s land commissioner, as their last flickering ember, with little of the appeal of their ancestors.

“Dad Bush was wonderful, wonderful, wonderful,” Carolyn Lightfoot, a member of the Daughters of the Republic of Texas, said of Bush’s grandfather. But the organization has criticized George P. Bush’s moves as land commissioner over his handling of the Alamo in San Antonio. Ms. Lightfoot said the Bush family and the party establishment were “trying to swallow him because of his Latino heritage.”

Even though the importance of family has faded among Texas Republicans, Bush can still emerge victorious in the runoff. A poll this month had Paxton’s support at less than 50 percent, with Bush trailing him by just a few percentage points. Donors have pumped new money into Bush’s campaign in the final stretch, hoping to push him to the top.

Bush has tried to refine and focus his attacks on Paxton in recent weeks, after internal polls for his campaign suggested that earlier efforts were damaging his own position along with Paxton’s. And Bush has proudly invoked his family, both in a political closing-message ad and when addressing audiences that might not be impressed with the Bush name.

“It’s about ethics,” Bush said at a gathering of Republican women this month in Argyle, a largely Republican and rapidly growing city in suburban Fort Worth. “When people say that the last thing we need is another Bush, my response is that this is precisely the time we need a Bush.”

As he tours the state, the 46-year-old Bush is invariably asked about his relatives, recounted a fond memory of them or dared to reiterate his allegiance to Trump.

After the event at Argyle, a man in a cowboy hat waited outside for Bush to come out so he could confront the candidate.

“Would you support the Republican candidate for president, even if it is Trump in 2024?” the man asked.

“Yeah, no, I’d support it again,” Bush responded as he walked to his car, wearing black cowboy boots emblazoned with a White House seal and a reference to his uncle’s ranch in Crawford, Texas. “But we’ll see who comes out.”

At a Republican club event in Houston, held across the street from an apartment George W. Bush used to occupy in an area George HW Bush used to represent in Congress, George P. Bush made a speech attacking the Democrats and Mr. Paxton. He promised to strengthen the state’s border with Mexico and address Houston’s rising murder rate. He opened the floor to questions, but received one comment to start.

“I enjoyed watching you speak, because to me, you have all the mannerisms of Governor Bush,” one man told him, drawing laughter from the room. “Your hands are like ‘Saturday Night Live.'”

Another attendee also made reference to his family. “I’ve heard people say they’re not going to vote for you because they’re tired of the Bush dynasty,” club member Doug Smith said, echoing the views of some in the room. “How do you respond to those people?”

“I will never run away from being a Bush; I love my family,” she said. Most of the crowd applauded.

To live in Texas is to be exposed to the ubiquity of the Bushes, whose surname is present in airports, highways and schools from Houston to Dallas and Midland. Both President Bushes have their presidential libraries in the state. In Houston, there are even dog parks named after the canine companions of George P. Bush’s grandmother, Barbara Bush, who died in 2018.

Exposed to national attention from a young age, Bush has been hearing about his bright political future for decades. “The Republican convention is doubling as a dress rehearsal for a man Republicans talk about as a promising heir to the Bush legacy,” The Baltimore Sun wrote about him in 2000, referring to him as a “chunk” who could put “ passion in compassionate conservatism”.

But that’s not the message Republicans want to hear right now, political consultants, donors and Texas watchers said.

“Everything was lining up to give him the brass ring, but the party changed too much,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a professor of political science at the University of Houston. “The Republican base changed so quickly that many were left without seats when the music stopped. Bush is a great example of that.”

Jay Zeidman, a longtime friend of Bush’s, said he believed those changes masked dissatisfaction with the direction the party had taken. “There is a lack of political courage in this state right now because of Donald Trump,” he said. “I think Americans and Texans are thirsty for some reversion to what politics used to be.”

While campaigning, Bush, who grew up in Florida, stresses his ties to Texas: He was born in Houston, studied at Rice University and earned a law degree in the state. In an interview, Bush said he understood his family’s legacy as something Texan, as well as “essentially American and patriotic.”

“My role is to heal the wounds of the past,” Bush said. “What I focus on are the areas I can control, and I don’t focus on the areas I can’t control. Because that would be useless.

Bush has championed hard-line positions that appeal to Republican primary voters on issues like teaching race and gender in schools. On immigration, he urged Texas to formally invoke passages in the U.S. Constitution that refer to “invasion,” a step toward a state seizure of war powers and a move that Paxton and Gov. Greg Abbott have so far avoided. He said there was “fraud and irregularity” in the 2020 election, although he didn’t think it would change the result.

He has challenged Paxton to debate issues with him, but the two have not shared a stage during the campaign. Bush contrasts his willingness to answer questions from reporters and a variety of audiences with Paxton’s practice of rarely holding news conferences or answering challenging questions.

Mr. Paxton’s campaign declined an interview request.

“Texas voters have made it clear that they are sick and tired of the Bush family dynasty and their RINO establishment donors playing kingpins in Texas politics,” said Kimi Hubbard, campaign spokeswoman for Paxton, using an acronym that stands for “Republican in name only.”

Bush was careful in an interview with The New York Times not to question changes in the Republican Party that have made his bid for office more difficult. He said the party’s voter concerns were largely the same as when he first ran for land commissioner in the 2014 election: “Concerns about my family, concerns about crime, border security.”

Have voters’ sentiments about the Bush dynasty hurt him? “I wouldn’t say that,” she said. “I win.”

A significant number of Republicans polled in Texas say they would not support Bush because of their family background. But his lineage is not simply a liability.

In this month’s poll by The Dallas Morning News and the University of Texas at Tyler, people planning to vote in the runoff primary for attorney general were asked what they liked about the chosen candidate. One of the main factors that Paxton’s supporters mentioned was that he was not a Bush. But about the same share of Bush supporters said they were drawn to him specifically because he was a Bush.

Bush has drawn financial support from his family network, including six-figure checks from some longtime Bush supporters and more than $100,000 directly from his uncle George W. Bush, campaign finance records show.

A week before the runoff, outside an early voting location in his grandfather’s former congressional district in Houston, Bush’s last name was very important to Republican voters, both for and against.

“We support George P.” said Julie Treadwell, 50, who had just voted with her 18-year-old daughter. “We want to get back to that,” she said of her family and what they represented to her: “Conservative Republicans who are more balanced and sensible.”

Darla Ryden, 59, who heard Ms Treadwell’s comments, waited until she had gone to her car before describing her own views, which she said were the opposite.

“I was all for George Bush, dad and son, but now I feel like the Bushes are more about power than people,” said Ms. Ryden. She voted for Paxton in the second round and also supported him in the first round of the primary, she said, despite “her own struggles.”

“The bushes?” she added. “It does.”

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