On the campaign trail with ‘the next George Bush’

Expectations are high for P, who is expected to be the first Bush male to win his first election

McALLEN, Texas – His introduction is a simple one. Walking around a room filled with older and Hispanic voters at GOP headquarters in a part of Texas that’s often forgotten about, the Republican nominee for state land commissioner makes his way past the platters of Chick-fil-A chicken nuggets and fruit, and toward prospective voters.

“Hey there, I’m George Bush,” he said with a wide smile. “How are ya?”

In a slightly wrinkled blue button-down and khakis, the 38-year-old first-time candidate listens to most people with his hands behind his back, listening intently, smiling when they ask about his father’s potential presidential candidacy. In the pre-speech prayer, a man associated with the Rio Grande Valley’s GOP includes the ideological temperature of the room in his invocation: “We know not all is right with America.” 

George P. Bush takes the microphone, joking about the Bush family knowing something about close races. He doesn’t mention his opponent in the race once, instead focusing his criticism toward President Obama and Wendy Davis, the Democratic nominee for governor of Texas.

“We don’t need to change Texas!” he told supporters. “Texas is doing just fine!”

His stump speech is short and sweet, but efficient and effective.

The venues might be small for now, but supporters of George P. Bush's campaign for Texas Land Commissioner see a bright future.
Timothy Bella

“God bless you and God bless the great state of Texas,” he said to a rousing ovation. He smiled, shook hands, posed for dozens of photos and made small talk. Soon, “the next George Bush,” a nickname bestowed upon him by Politico, was headed to his next event, all a part of his first political campaign's exhausting 40-city, 40-date bus tour.

Supporters come for the name and they stay for the promise that is “P.” – son of Jeb, nephew of George Walker, grandson of George Herbert Walker. For an obscure political office, the profile of land commissioner has increased substantially with the candidacy of George P., a fourth-generation candidate from what’s arguably the country’s most active political dynasty.

“He’s a little far away from being a national star at this point,” said Stephen Hess, senior fellow emeritus at the Brookings Institution, “but no other candidate for commissioner of land development or whatever has been on a national stage, or is on the front page of The New York Times.”

John Cook, a former El Paso mayor who is Bush’s Democratic opponent in the race, has experienced firsthand what it's like competing against the next candidate to emerge from a brand-name political family.

President George W. Bush, left, with his nephew in 2012.
LM Otero/AP

“Running against a dynasty has been extremely difficult,” he said. “It’s like David was against Goliath and all they ever talked about was Goliath and forgot about David. Or if [boxer Manny] Pacquiao was defending the title and they never tell you who he’s getting in the ring with.”

With an 18-point lead in a race he’s expected to win handily on Tuesday, the question isn’t how close the race is going to be for the prohibitive favorite but how Bush will able to grow as an elected official and viable candidate for a Republican Party looking for new leaders exhibiting reliability and versatility.

“George P. Bush exists within the aura of his grandfather and his father, and less of his uncle, and this is his current strength in Texas politics,” said Cal Jillson, a political science professor and Texas political expert at Southern Methodist University. “He will win this race going away and will have a bright future in Texas politics – and maybe beyond – unless he makes a serious mistake.”

'I'll take what I can get'

Political watchers have given the rookie politician high marks on his first campaign while wondering about his possible ambitions at the statewide and national levels.

In the two years since Bush announced his candidacy, his brand has increased in stature. He’s amassed a campaign war chest of millions of dollars, compared to just a few thousand dollars in contributions for Cook, according to the most recent campaign finance filings. The cost of previous land commissioner races hasn't cracked six figures, let alone seven.

As part of his bus tour, George P. Bush visited about 30 college campuses, including the University of Texas-Pan American.
Timothy Bella

Cook said that wealthy supporters in El Paso were scared away from contributing and going against the Bush family.

“When I talked to them about financing my campaign, they said, ‘We don’t think you can win, so we can’t help fund it,’” Cook said.

Bush’s social media presence for this first campaign – spearheaded by 20-something communications director, J.R. Hernandez, the son of longtime Republican political adviser, Juan Hernandez – has already attracted hundreds of thousands of followers on Facebook and Twitter. The campaign has been very careful in not overexposing him early on, cautiously picking national outlets Politico, The New York Times and Fox News.

Volunteers in white button-downs are scattered throughout the quad on the campus of the University of Texas-Pan American in nearby Edinburg, passing out fliers, stickers and P. shirts to anyone who’d pay attention. His run of 30 campuses during the campaign has hit a crescendo at UTPA, a school with a student population that’s about 90 percent Hispanic. During the stop, dozens of students say hi and ask for pictures on their smartphones. He goes in and out of speaking Spanish with them.

“I’d wish you good luck, but you don’t need it,” one student told him.

Shaking his head while shooting the student a smile and a laugh, Bush quickly replied: “Oh no, I’ll take what I can get.”

It’s rare, if not impossible, that a campaign stop goes by without someone mentioning or asking about his grandfather, his uncle or his dad. No matter where P. goes, his family’s legacy isn’t too far behind. In the first section of photos at the George W. Bush Presidential Center in Dallas, there is just one mention or photo of Jeb’s son. It’s a black-and-white family portrait at Christmas in 1979, and the whole crew is there – from George Herbert and Barbara to George Walker and Laura. Sitting on the floor is Jeb, then 26 with a full head of brown hair. In his lap is George P., a 3-year-old toddler with a dark complexion similar to that of his mother, Columba. Now, father and son have met again on the political trail, with Jeb campaigning for George P. and the son insinuating that his father might run for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016.

Jeb Bush with George P., then 3, in his lap around Christmas in 1979.
Courtesy: George W. Bush Presidential Center

Any “Bush fatigue” that the nation has felt in the past – and may come up again if the former Florida governor does decide to run – shouldn’t affect George P. in this election cycle, Jillson said.

“The fact that George P. Bush is the only Bush one the ballot this year means that he doesn’t have to deal with all that in an immediate way,” Jillson said. “But if he is elected land commissioner of Texas, and then his father, Jeb Bush, does run for the presidency and wins the presidency, he would have some of the difficulties that George W. Bush had in the wake of his father’s presidency.”

Many students walking up to Bush don’t know about the duties of land commissioner – a role that includes protecting citizens’ property rights and managing the state’s Permanent School Fund, which assists in providing a return for primary and secondary education in Texas. The large turnout at UTPA, a university that is largely Democratic like most of surrounding Hidalgo County, excited Joshua Rojas, president of the school’s College Republicans and a soon-to-be college graduate.

“What I see is a young, strong, bold conservative and an energetic, new leader,” said Rojas, a senior finance major from Donna, Texas. “We need more of that in the Republican Party.”

Making Bush history?

Inside Willie B.’s Barbecue, people put down their brisket sandwiches or ribs and wipe away any residual sauce before getting a chance to say hi to Bush. Like his previous two stops on the day, Bush isn’t too big for the setting. After taking a couple bites of his food, he takes the microphone and touts his military experience as a Navy Reserve officer. It'll be another hour before he touches that plate again.

“You need a military veteran to serve in the world,” he said, much to the delight of the barbecue crowd.

George P. Bush with his grandfather, President George H.W. Bush, at the Republican National Convention in 2004.
Ted S. Warren/AP

History hasn’t been kind to Bush men in their first elections. Prescott Bush, his great-grandfather, lost his first race in 1950 before winning a U.S. Senate seat in Connecticut. In 1964, George H.W. Bush, then chairman of the Republican Party of Harris County, Texas, was labeled something of a right-wing extremist and lost the 1964 election for a U.S. Senate seat in Texas. Fourteen years later, George W. Bush was viewed as being out of touch when he lost his congressional race in 1978. Even George P.’s father, Jeb, found himself on the short end of the stick in his first race, losing the 1994 race for governor of Florida.

The timing of Bush’s decision to run for office comes after years of sharpening his teeth managing a technology and energy investment firm based in Fort Worth, heading up two political action committees, and using his experience as a former teacher to chair a charter school network in Dallas for inner-city youth. Hess said he’s learned from the ups and downs of their first campaigns, which has been to his benefit.

“I think we’ve already seen a degree of patience,” said Hess, author of “America’s Political Dynasties.” “The fact that he’s been taking his time and sort of planting his seeds and watching them grow, it’s wise. I think it is something that he probably learned over time from his father and his grandfather. It’s a good quality to have for politics.”

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