George P. Bush’s defeat could be the end of the line for a four-generation political dynasty

George P. Bush at his election watch party at Central Machine Works in Austin on Tuesday, March 1, 2022. (Lauren Witte/The Texas Tribune, Lauren Witte/The Texas Tribune)

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When George P. Bush burst onto the scene at the Republican National Convention in 2000, the handsome, 24-year-old nephew of presidential nominee George W. Bush had all of the makings of a future leader of the GOP.

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He was already political royalty — heir to a dynasty that included his father, then-Florida governor Jeb Bush, and his grandfather, former President George H.W. Bush. The son of a Mexican mother, and a fluent Spanish speaker, he seemed poised to broaden the appeal of the Republican Party to a younger and increasingly diverse electorate in the 21st century.

[Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton easily defeats George P. Bush in GOP primary runoff]

“Que viva Bush!” he told the convention to roaring applause. “Y que vivan los Estados Unidos!”

On Tuesday, the 46-year-old badly lost his runoff primary challenge to two-term Attorney General Ken Paxton, a staunch conservative who was seen as the most vulnerable Republican incumbent on the ballot due to his mounting scandals, including a felony indictment and an FBI investigation into his office for allegations of malfeasance.

George P. Bush gives a speech at the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia on August 3, 2000. His uncle, George W. Bush, was set to accept the Republican nomination for president later in the evening.
George P. Bush gives a speech at the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia on August 3, 2000. His uncle, George W. Bush, was set to accept the Republican nomination for president later in the evening. Credit: Gary Hershorn/REUTERS
Republican U.S. presidential candidate and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush looks toward his son George P. Bush and wife Columba before addressing a town hall during a campaign stop in Salem, New Hampshire on Feb. 7, 2016.
Republican U.S. presidential candidate and former governor Jeb Bush (L) looks toward his son George P. Bush and wife Columba (in red) before addressing a town hall during a campaign stop at Woodbury School in Salem, New Hampshire February 7, 2016. Credit: REUTERS/Adrees Latif
First: George P. Bush gives a speech at the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia on August 3, 2000. His uncle, George W. Bush, was set to accept the Republican nomination for president later in the evening. Last: Republican U.S. presidential candidate and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush looks toward his son George P. Bush and wife Columba before addressing a town hall during a campaign stop in Salem, New Hampshire on Feb. 7, 2016. Credit: Gary Hershorn/Adrees Latif/REUTERS

Bush’s loss marks what will soon be the end of an eight-year stint as a statewide elected official, after serving back-to-back terms as land commissioner. He continues to serve until the end of the year. But more significantly, it heralds a shift in the Texas Republican politics away from the pro-business establishment and toward a more populist, combative and harsh style of politics. Bush’s defeat also notches another victory for former president Donald Trump, who has clashed with the Bush family for years and who repeatedly expressed his support for Paxton in the attorney general race.

This defeat could mark the end of a four-generation political dynasty, and the end of an era of Texas politics that began when the first George Bush moved to Odessa in 1948.

“The Bush family name is essentially what the Romanov family name is in Russia,” said Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University. “There’s still somebody out there claiming to be czar but nobody’s listening.”

Twenty two years after George P. Bush’s debut at the RNC, the factors that once made him appealing to GOP voters have turned against him — the party has moved to the hard right, making opposition to immigration (both legal and illegal) a pillar of its agenda and eschewing the more genteel bipartisan consensus that the Bushes once seemed to embody.

Bush’s inability to get past such a troubled candidate as Paxton shows how much the Texas electorate, and the American electorate, has changed since his uncle, George W. Bush, was elected Texas governor in 1994 and then president in 2000.

An April poll by the Texas Hispanic Policy Foundation found that 40% of Republican primary voters said they would never vote for George P. Bush. Two-thirds of those voters said that’s because he’s a member of the Bush family.

“Texas politics have shifted so much in the last 20 to 30 years that the family that was Republican royalty have gone from that to basically being vilified for essentially being mainline doctrinaire conservatives,” said Jon Taylor, a political scientist at the University of Texas at San Antonio. “The Bush family helped to build the modern Republican Party of Texas.”

Bush history

The Bush family got its start in politics more than 1,000 miles away from Texas in Connecticut with the family’s patriarch, Prescott Bush, an investment banker who served as that state’s U.S. Senator from 1952 to 1963.

In 1948, his son, George Herbert Walker Bush, moved to Odessa to enter the oil business. He became involved in Republican political circles in a state dominated by conservative white Democrats since the end of Reconstruction.

George H.W. Bush would run in multiple races for the state’s U.S. Senate seats and lose, but he made inroads by winning election to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1966. He was appointed as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, and served as chairman of the Republican National Committee and director of the Central Intelligence Agency before being elected as Ronald Reagan’s vice president in 1980 in a landslide that swept Texas. (Texas has not voted for a Democrat for president since Jimmy Carter in 1976.)

Bush’s two terms as vice president coincided with the rise of the GOP in the state, which in 1978 elected Bill Clements, its first Republican governor since the end of Reconstruction. In 1988, George H.W. Bush was elected president and his expertise in foreign relations stood out in his navigation of the final years of the Cold War, the first Persian Gulf War, and the negotiation of what became the North American Free Trade Agreement.

In hindsight, his view of America as a global beacon, his appeal for a “kinder, gentler” nation and his distaste for budget deficits were the last years of a more consensus-driven politics that had begun to erode in the 1980s and all but vanished by the end of the 1990s. And his aspirational view of the country as a force for good was epitomized in his frequently used “thousand points of light” metaphor to encourage civic engagement by community organizations.

But after famously reneging on a promise not to increase taxes, George H.W. Bush was defeated in the 1992 presidential election by Bill Clinton.

His son, George W. Bush, picked up the Bush dynasty mantle in 1994 and swept into the Texas governor’s office by defeating Democrat Ann Richards. The election marked a turning point for Texas politics. Four years later, during Bush’s reelection run, Republicans would sweep all the major statewide offices and have not relinquished them in the 24 years since.

As governor, George W. Bush proved popular and focused on issues like cutting taxes, tort reform and public education. In the statehouse, he bred a reputation for working across the aisle with Democrats and the “compassionate conservatism” that would fuel his presidential campaigns in 2000 and 2004.

“I felt compelled to phrase it this way because people hear ‘conservative’ and they think heartless,” George W. Bush later reminisced. “And my belief then and now is that the right conservative philosophies are compassionate and help people.”

That conservatism focused on improving education, reducing barriers for business and helping people of color achieve economic and social success. He courted Latino voters and, as president, appointed Alberto R. Gonzales, a former Texas Supreme Court justice, as the nation’s first (and so far only) Hispanic attorney general. Mexican ranchera legend Vicente Fernandez sang at the 2000 Republican National Convention at which Bush was nominated (and his nephew, George P., fêted).

George W. Bush won more than 40% of the Latino vote in his 2004 presidential race and brought to the White House a desire for immigration reform, including the creation of a guest worker program (opposed by many Democrats) and an eventual path to citizenship (opposed by many Republicans).

“Family values don’t end at the Rio Grande Valley,” George W. Bush often said.

While popular during his initial years in the White House, those goals were stymied by an increasingly anti-immigrant faction of the Republican Party. A Bush-backed, bipartisan immigration bill was defeated in the Senate in 2007. A similar measure, backed by then-President Barack Obama, died in 2014 at the hands of House Republicans.

Former President George W. Bush speaks at the 2016 NASCO Continental Reunion at the George W. Bush Presidential Library in Dallas on Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2016.
Former President George W. Bush speaks at the 2016 NASCO Continental Reunion at the George W. Bush Presidential Library in Dallas on Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2016. Credit: Laura Buckman for The Texas Tribune

George W. Bush’s final years in the presidency were soured by the public’s opposition to the Iraq War, the government’s increasing surveillance during the War on Terror following the Sept. 11 attacks, his handling of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and the Great Recession.

Those dissatisfactions would continue to fester within the GOP during Obama’s eight-year tenure in office, with Republicans repudiating George W. Bush’s policies and blaming him for not being more aggressive on socially conservative issues and for tanking the economy.

“Once Bush is out of office, immediately the Republican party is in a position of the wilderness,” said Taylor, the UT-San Antonio political scientist. “The Republican party didn’t know where it was going. They knew where they were going only in opposition to Obama, and that morphed into the Tea Party movement.”

George P.’s rise coincides with the Tea Party

In Texas, the Tea Party movement rocked the statehouse hard when Republicans won 99 seats in the 150-member House in 2010, ousting several moderate Republicans and Democrats. In the same election, Republicans took control of the U.S. House.

Two years later, a relatively unknown former Texas solicitor general named Ted Cruz, a Tea Party favorite then endorsed by George P. Bush, beat out Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, a moderate Republican, in the 2012 U.S. Senate race. Dewhurst was a member of the GOP establishment who’d been first elected statewide as land commissioner the same year George W. Bush won a second term as governor. Dewhurst lost his bid for another term as lieutenant governor in 2014 to a conservative senator named Dan Patrick who’d been a pariah to most Republicans during his first years in office.

That same year, George P. Bush, whose middle name is that of the family’s patriarch, won election as land commissioner with 61% of the vote. Back then, the younger Bush pushed a “big tent” version of the Republican Party, appealing to disillusioned Democrats and independents and expressed support for the Texas Dream Act, which provided in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants who came to the state as children.

At his swearing in ceremony, then-Texas Supreme Court Justice Don Willett said George P. Bush’s election kicked off a new era for “one of the most revered families in American history.”

Bush’s style was wonky and in the weeds, reminiscent of his grandfather. He focused on the state’s water rights, creating the first online auction for oil leases, and making sure protecting endangered species didn’t get in the way of business interests. In 2016, he said his top legislative priority would be protecting the state’s coasts.

But he also borrowed from his uncle’s compassionate conservatism, which espoused that there is enough room in politics for tougher border security and helping undocumented immigrants who came to the country looking for a better life.

George P. Bush with his mother, Columba, father, Jeb, and wife, Amanda, during Bush's swearing in as Texas Land Commissioner on Jan. 2, 2015.
George P. Bush with his mother, Columba, father, Jeb, and wife, Amanda, during Bush's swearing in as Texas Land Commissioner on Jan. 2, 2015. Credit: Bob Daemmrich for The Texas Tribune

As a Latino, George P. Bush also worked hard to court candidates and voters of color to the GOP, which at times required him to denounce members of the party who made racist comments.

In 2019, he denounced a Republican state legislator who said his opponents in a highly diverse state house district in Fort Bend County were only running because they were Asian and had decided “that my district might need an Asian to win.” George P. Bush also called for the resignation of a GOP county chairwoman who used a racial slur in a text message about a Black party organizer.

At the beginning of the younger Bush’s first term as land commissioner, an intraparty war within the Texas GOP was already raging, and despite being more socially conservative than his predecessors, Bush still found himself aligned with the center-right, pro-business faction.

The 2016 presidential election defined the party’s rightward shift. George P. Bush’s father, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, announced his candidacy in June 2015 and received millions of dollars from donors and strong support from the party establishment.

But he collided in the primary with the eventual winner of the race, Trump, who used his campaign announcement to denigrate Mexican immigrants as “criminals, drug dealers, rapists.”

The younger Bush, like much of the party establishment at the time, dismissed Trump as a trivial candidate and said his comments “have no place in our party.” George P. Bush’s mother is a naturalized U.S. citizen from Mexico.

But Republican voters gravitated toward Trump’s nationalist vision to “Make America Great Again” and his penchant for making outlandish, frequently insulting, comments about women, people of color and political opponents. In fact, it was Jeb Bush whom voters bounced early in that race, largely based on Trump’s frequent characterization of him as “low energy.”

When Trump became the party’s nominee, most of the Bush family declined to publicly support him. George P. Bush, the only member of the family still in office, was the sole member of the clan to endorse him.

He initially stumped for his dad, Jeb Bush, but ultimately threw his support behind Trump, saying it was a “bitter pill to swallow” for Team Bush, but Republican voters had to stop Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.

Later, George P. Bush characterized his relationship with Trump as “professional” but remained concerned that the Republican Party was viewed as unwelcoming for people of color. Still, he supported Trump in his reelection effort in 2020.

When George P. Bush launched his campaign for attorney general last June, he lobbied hard for Trump’s endorsement, handing out campaign koozies with a cartoon picture of Trump that quoted the former president saying: “This is the only Bush that likes me. This is the Bush that got it right. I like him.”

Bush’s problem: Paxton was far closer to the president. Paxton had filed a last ditch lawsuit in federal court to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election in four states where Trump lost. The U.S. Supreme Court dismissed that lawsuit because Texas had no standing, but it appeared enough to curry Trump’s favor. The former president endorsed Paxton early in the race.

Still, George P. Bush shifted to the right to win over Republican primary voters. He pledged to help the state secure the border and build Trump’s unfinished wall, while supporting state investigations into families of transgender children and denouncing Democrats as a “woke” mob. He went back on his previous support for the Texas Dream Act, now saying that he supports the Republican Party of Texas’ platform to repeal the law.

But despite his best efforts to stay in step with the party, he was trampled by its rightward shift.

“The party shifted, Republican voters shifted and the conservatism that may have been popular during George W. Bush’s tenure as governor just doesn’t fit Texas anymore,” said Renee Cross, a political scientist at the Hobby School of Public Affairs at the University of Houston.

George P. Bush’s gaffes as land commissioner also came back to haunt him. His handling of federal hurricane recovery relief funds, which gave far more money per person to inland areas than to coastal ones that had been more seriously impacted by storms, is still hounding him. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development found his agency's distribution of the funds discriminated against people of color.

Perhaps his most consequential mistake was wading into a redesign of the Alamo grounds that considered relocating a monument to the revolutionaries who died at the 1836 battle.

The Alamo Cenotaph at Alamo Plaza in San Antonio commemorates the Battle of the Alamo. Jan. 7, 2019.
The Alamo Cenotaph in San Antonio commemorates the Battle of the Alamo. Credit: Eddie Gaspar/The Texas Tribune

Bush argued that the cenotaph, as the monument is called, needed to be moved 500 feet to the south near the historic Menger Hotel to be preserved. But opponents of the move said the relocation would dishonor the sacrifice of the revolutionaries who died there. Major Republican officials, like Patrick, sided with those who wanted the cenotaph to stay in place. During the attorney general race, Paxton characterized Bush as a “liberal” who had backed a “woke plan” to remove historic monuments.

“It was pretty much a debacle,” said Rick Range, a member of a group created to fight Bush’s redesign of the Alamo who ran against him in the GOP primary for land commissioner in 2018. “His mishandling of the Alamo was what got me in opposition.”

The ‘D word’

As a fourth-generation politician, who grew up attending political conventions for his elders, George P. Bush has always been aware of the weight his name carries and the assumptions that come with it.

“What a lot of people get wrong about my family is that we covet title and it's about continuing some sort of tradition, when it's all about public service,” he said in March as he prepared for a runoff with Paxton.

“This has never been about titles, let alone the ‘D word’ as we call it in our family,” he added, nodding to the use of the word “dynasty” to describe his family, “This is about serving.”

Bush is serving his second term as Texas land commissioner and though his race became tighter in 2018 because of a strong showing by Democrats, he was still one of the top statewide vote getters with 4.4 million votes in his favor. That was more than senatorial candidates Ted Cruz and Beto O’Rourke received and more than any other statewide candidate except for Gov. Greg Abbott.

That counts for something despite his more recent loss, said longtime lobbyist Bill Miller.

“If you think about the arc of politics, the Kennedys have not always been successful. They’ve won and lost. Political dynasties have ups and downs,” Miller said. “There’s unpredictability to it. There’s a season for it. Right now, he’s running against a guy who’s really popular with the Republican primary electorate. It’s not about George P. losing, it’s about Paxton winning.”

Tuesday’s loss marks the second time in two years that a member of the family failed to get out of the primaries in a Texas election. In 2020, George P. Bush’s cousin, Pierce Bush, came a distant third in the GOP primary for Congressional District 22 near their grandfather’s old stomping ground of Houston and failed to even make a runoff.

Taylor said the two losses indicate voters’ fatigue with political dynasties.

“We’ve seen and heard their names so many times, it’s like, ‘Oh gosh, another one?’” he said. “There comes a point where the electorate just gets tired of it.”

Pierce and George P. are the last Bushes — for now — to express any interest in politics. Jenna Bush Hager, one of George W. Bush’s twin daughters, is a journalist who works on the Today Show on NBC. Her sister, Barbara Pierce Bush, is the co-founder of a public health nonprofit.

Miller said the family name is going through a rough patch with the electorate, but he doesn’t expect that to last. He thinks George P. Bush has enough name recognition and political chops to make a comeback in the future.

“Time heals all wounds,” Miller said. “The political climates always change and everyone knows that. The political climate is not conducive to him or helpful to him at the moment. That may change or that may not, but [the Bush name] won’t be a negative going forward for much longer.”

The recent defeats the family has taken indicate a halt in the family’s run of success, Miller said.

“Now is it permanent?” he asked. “I would argue it’s temporary.”

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