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Did Pierce Bush's family name doom his congressional run, or did his campaigning?

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Pierce Bush. Via Big Brothers Big Sisters Lone Star

Pierce Bush, the grandson of the late President George H.W. Bush, failed to make the cut Tuesday in his bid for the Republican nomination in Texas' 22nd Congressional District.

Incomplete results indicated the nonprofit executive was headed to either a third- or fourth-place finish in a 15-way primary race to represent the suburban Houston district, which had become a national Democratic target even before U.S. Rep. Pete Olson, R-Sugar Land, announced his retirement last July. The top two vote-getters in the race, Fort Bend County Sheriff Troy Nehls and technology consultant Kathaleen Wall, will face off in a May runoff election.

Top Houston political scientists said the outcome may be an indicator of the Bush family's waning clout as its signature "compassionate conservatism" has gone out of style in the Republican Party. But they said it is equally suggestive of Bush's overall political strategy, including his decision to forego running in another congressional district where his family's political legacy was far stronger.

The second Bush of his generation to seek political office — his cousin, George P. Bush, was elected Texas land commissioner in 2014 — Pierce Bush was a late entrant into an already crowded primary race, though he quickly out-raised his 14 opponents and eventually won the endorsement of Olson. But even his entrance was somewhat of a surprise: He had considered running for the nearby 7th Congressional District, which his grandfather represented from 1967 to 1971 but decided against it.

When he announced his bid for the 22nd in December, he didn't live in the district but said he would move there — an admission that prompted swift rebuke from competitors even though the law doesn't require candidates to live in the districts for which they are running.

Bush "started too late and got tagged as a carpetbagger in a primary field that was moving significantly far to the right ideologically," said University of Houston political scientist Brandon Rottinghaus. "The race is as much a referendum on the Bush name as on the dynamics of modern Republican Party primary politics."

The fact that Bush's cousin is "thriving politically in conservative Texas shows the Bush name can be a building block for a campaign but can’t be the only brick," Rottinghaus said, noting the land commissioner was the second-leading Republican vote-getter behind Gov. Greg Abbott in 2018.

Rice University political scientist Mark Jones has said that Pierce Bush would have made a formidable general election candidate. But he faced an uphill battle in a district whose Republican primary voters overwhelmingly favored U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz in the 2016 GOP presidential contest over more moderate candidates.

"Pierce Bush’s failure to reach the runoff suggests that the market for the Bush family brand of compassionate conservatism is nowhere near as strong as it was 20 to 30 years ago when his grandfather and uncle enjoyed widespread support within the Texas GOP," Jones said. "At the same time, it is important not to read too much into this race, since Pierce Bush’s candidacy was undercut from the outset by the launch of his campaign less than three months prior to election day as well as the legitimate critiques against him of being a carpetbagger who only moved into the district after launching his candidacy."

The 22nd District is one of seven seats that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has prioritized flipping this cycle in Texas.

Whoever wins the May runoff will face Democrat and former foreign service officer Sri Preston Kulkarni.

Disclosure: The University of Houston and Rice University have been financial supporters 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.