Wednesday, November 30, 2022

George P. Bush struggles to overcome family name in Texas attorney general race


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In 2000, George P. Bush — then 24 and about to enter the University of Texas Law School — recorded a Spanish-language ad for his uncle’s presidential campaign. He looked primed to be his storied family’s next standard-bearer, updated for the 21st century: bilingual, telegenic, the son of a governor and an immigrant from Mexico. The campaign’s ad maker, Mark McKinnon, took to calling him “47,” in anticipation that “P,” as he’s known to friends and family, would before long join his grandfather (George H.W. Bush, 41) and uncle (George W. Bush, 43) in the American presidential pantheon.

But now, as Bush wraps up a runoff for Texas attorney general, his place in that political dynasty has been an obstacle in a party now in thrall to a different famous surname.

“It’s tough running in Texas as a Bush. I think it’s the end of the line,” said Richard Murray, a politics professor at the University of Houston. “Bush is a four-letter word right now in Texas far-right politics.”

The question for Texas Republican primary voters today is whether the name Bush proves a bigger problem than even the swirl of legal troubles dogging the incumbent attorney general, Ken Paxton — a seven-year-old securities fraud indictment, a separate FBI corruption investigation, and a bar review over his efforts to overturn the 2020 election. Paxton has denied wrongdoing in all those cases.

The Bush campaign didn’t respond to a request for comment.

The result could be closer than widely expected, according to Dave Carney, a Republican strategist who has advised George H.W. Bush and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott. Carney noted that almost 23 percent of early runoff voters did not vote in the primary, and it wasn’t clear who they’d support.

Texas has been the Bush family’s adoptive homeland ever since 1948, when George H.W. Bush, a Connecticut blue blood, senator’s son, combat pilot and Yale graduate, moved with his wife and young son to the Midland oil fields. For eight years when George W. Bush was in the White House, his ranch in Crawford served as a presidential getaway. And the state is home to two presidential libraries, an international airport, schools, roads and parks all bearing the same storied name.

George P. Bush ran with 100 percent name recognition, but the name was among his biggest weakness, according to political observers in the state. Forty percent of Texas Republican primary voters said they’d never vote for Bush, with two-thirds of them saying the reason was his name, according to a March survey by the Texas Hispanic Policy Foundation. (The second biggest complaint was about Bush’s handling of the Alamo historic site as Texas land commissioner, though most voters weren’t exactly sure what he did wrong, according to Mark P. Jones, a Rice University politics professor who conducted the survey.)

The result about the Bush family name echoed an alarming finding early in the 2016 presidential campaign of Bush’s father, Jeb. When the campaign’s internal pollsters asked voters what they didn’t like about the candidate, about 40 percent gave an answer that amounted to the fact that his name was Bush, according to Tim Miller, who worked as the campaign’s spokesman.

Trump capitalized on the Republican base’s disaffection with the Bush family, going so far as to blame George W. Bush for the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in a 2016 primary debate.

“The Bush brand is not what Republican base voters are looking for right now,” Miller said. “It’s not like [George P. Bush] was some Bush third cousin, or the rebel in the family. He was very much the natural successor to the original Bush brand, and no matter how much he tried to change, people could smell it wasn’t authentic MAGA,” he said, referring to Trump’s “Make America Great Again” movement.

Bush has tried to outrun his family legacy by repositioning himself as an America First candidate. His campaign rolled out red beer koozies with a rendering of Trump shaking Bush’s hand and saying, “This is the Bush that got it right.” He ran to the right on immigration, moving from supporting in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children to promising to finish building Trump’s border wall. He called for declaring an “invasion” at the border. He appeared on Real America’s Voice, the right-wing video network that’s home to former Trump strategist Stephen K. Bannon, to support adding more prosecutors to pursue voter fraud.

Bush also closed the campaign by hitting Paxton harder for his ethics scandals. Paxton ads throughout the campaign attacked Bush as a “liberal.”

“Campaigns still matter, we’ll see who ran a better campaign,” Carney said.

Bush’s gestures at Trumpism made some longtime friends of his and his family’s cringe.

“I was disappointed in him and told him that to his face,” said Jason Villalba, a former state senator who renounced the GOP in 2016 and now leads the Texas Hispanic Policy Foundation. “But I also know politics. He’s playing a role he’s got to play in order to win. I get it. Trumpism is what it means to be a Republican today.”

But others say Bush genuinely holds views to the right of his famous family members. His father, Jeb Bush, as governor of Florida was considered more of a conservative darling than his brother George W. Bush was as governor of Texas. And George P. Bush’s coming of age coincided with the rise of a Republican base that prized all-out partisan warfare. In 2012, the younger Bush rocked the Texas GOP establishment by endorsing long-shot conservative firebrand Ted Cruz for Senate and then calling him the future of the party.

“I’m not at all surprised that George P. would be more conservative and more receptive to the shifts in the Republican Party that occurred over the last 15 to 20 years,” said Daron Shaw, who worked on the 2000 and 2004 presidential campaigns and is now a politics professor at the University of Texas at Austin. “It’s a new generation and he’s been more sensitive to some of these issues. I think he’s more that way than Jeb and W.”

Many observers, though, say Bush has struggled to convince Texas primary voters that his genes are not his destiny. They’ve been let down by Bushes before, said Luke Macias, a Texas-based Republican consultant and podcast host who works with a PAC supporting Paxton.

“George W. Bush spent his entire political career telling conservatives and evangelicals, ‘I’m one of you,’ and then often governing in the middle and campaigning on the right,” Macias said. “There’s a little bit of ‘Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me’ to Texas voters who feel like they’ve been fooled by Bushes quite a few times,” he added, quoting a proverb that the former president famously flubbed.

There was no room to campaign to the right of Paxton, who asked the Supreme Court to overturn the 2020 election, spoke at the Jan. 6, 2021, rally that turned into an attack on the Capitol, and has attacked gender-affirming health care for transgender children. Paxton locked up Trump’s endorsement, notwithstanding the detailing on any beer koozies.

“The idea that the Bushes are insufficiently conservative is very hard to get your mind around. 1994 me watching George W. Bush beat Ann Richards handily would not believe 2022 me telling 1994 me this guy will one day in the future be seen as a RINO,” said Evan Smith, the CEO of the Texas Tribune, using a term that stands for “Republican in Name Only.” “Bush’s brand of conservatism does not compute in the modern world. The world changed.”

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