Karen Tumulty (c) 2014, The Washington Post. VICTORIA, Texas — For a guy who is on his way to winning an obscure state office by a landslide, George P. Bush is working awfully hard.
The last month has found the 38-year-old first-time candidate chugging across Texas on a big red-and-white tour bus emblazoned with his dynastic name and his movie-star-handsome face. Two dozen counties. Fifty-four stops. Twenty-two college campuses. Over the course of the entire campaign, 15,000 miles.
George Prescott Bush is the elder son of former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and his Mexican-born wife, Columba; the grandson of former President George H.W. Bush; and the nephew of another president, George W. Bush.
On Tuesday, he is expected to be elected Texas land commissioner — and to break a family jinx. Going all the way back to his great-grandfather Prescott, a financier and mid-20th-century senator from Connecticut, no Bush has ever won the first time he ran for office.
He also represents an opportunity to rebrand the Bushes. The name remains beloved among old-line Republicans in Texas but stands for everything the ascendant tea party faction believes is wrong with the party. It is also a bit shopworn after two rocky presidencies — though there is the prospect that his father will make a bid in 2016 to be the third Bush in the White House.
“This election is George P. Bush’s coming-out party in Texas politics,” said Mark P. Jones, the head of the Rice University political science department. “George P. Bush views himself as providing the bridge to the future of the Republican Party.”
At the moment, it is a party of warring factions, and George P. has managed to find a place in both camps. He has the DNA of the establishment but was among the earliest to endorse Ted Cruz in the 2012 GOP Senate primary, at a time when hardly anyone thought the tea party favorite had a chance.
“The Texas Republican Party is in many respects like the national party,” Bush said in an interview aboard his bus. “We have different components that all add value in different ways, whether it’s the tea party on fiscal questions, whether it’s the so-called establishment that’s focused on economic development questions, moving states like Texas forward. And you also have social conservatives.”
He added: “I received endorsements from tea party to moderates alike. And I think that’s unique, and that’s something I’m proud of.”
He stands out in another way: In a state with rapidly changing demographics, George P. is the only Republican running for a top statewide office this year who is not a white male, Jones noted. (His grandfather once caused a flap by introducing George P. and his siblings to President Ronald Reagan as “Jebby’s kids from Florida, the little brown ones.”)
“I’ve reached out to independents and minorities that have traditionally voted Democrat but that are conservative on a lot of questions,” Bush said. “We talk to young people, folks that typically aren’t voting on a consistent basis. I’m proud of that. It’s unconventional, but it’s something I felt was important, at least to my race.”
The number of times that Bush invokes the things that he is “proud of” speaks to the fact that while he entered politics with a leg up, he also has something to prove.
His early performances on the stump got mixed reviews. Though more confident now, he is cautious and rarely takes questions from audiences, which seem to prefer lining up to have their pictures taken with him anyway.
Jeff Cohen, who runs the Houston Chronicle’s liberal-leaning editorial page, said that of the more than 100 candidates who have presented themselves to the paper’s editorial board this year, Bush was “not only the most prepared of the bunch but the most willing to say: ‘I don’t know. I will get back to you.’ “
The effort paid off, with an Oct. 17 endorsement from the Chronicle that began: “If anyone is tempted to dismiss George P. Bush as a political newcomer running on little more than an impressive name, please reconsider. Bush is the real deal.”
For years, the question had been when — not whether — he would go into the family business. Destiny has been pointing that way from the time he was 12 years old and, sporting an adorably awful haircut, led the Pledge of Allegiance at the 1988 Republican National Convention that nominated George H.W. for president.
In the intervening years, he polished his resume to a sheen and established his Texas bona fides: Rice University undergraduate degree; a year teaching high school history to at-risk kids back in Florida; University of Texas law school; a stint at one of the state’s premier law firms; co-founder of a private equity outfit in Austin and an oil-and-gas investment firm in Fort Worth; and a tour in Afghanistan with the Navy Reserve.
When he filed paperwork to run for statewide office in 2012, it was not immediately clear which job Bush had in mind. Yet the money poured in — $1.3 million over the next two months. His father and famous uncle each chipped in $50,000.
There was speculation that he might run for attorney general or even governor, but he picked land commissioner. It is a low-profile job with duties that few Texans could name.
There is no land commission. The commissioner heads nine different boards and “oversees matters that range from state lands and coastal issues to veterans affairs,” according to the official website.
His Democratic opponent is John Cook, the former two-term mayor of El Paso, who didn’t know he would be running against a Bush when he announced his candidacy.
“That made it a little more challenging,” Cook said.
Which is an understatement, given that the latest University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll has Bush ahead by 18 points.
Though George P. has clearly had the benefit of his family name and network, he is not relying on its political brain trust. His campaign manager, Travis Griffin, is 36 and says he is practically “the oldest of the bunch.”
Karl Rove, who was George W.’s chief political strategist, said of the younger Bush, “He has been supported by and actually created a new generation of friends, supporters, advisers and fundraisers.”
That was deliberate, the candidate said. “As you can imagine, with the name Bush, there would be certain assumptions made about my candidacy. So whether it’s my ideas, my policy positions, my vision for the [land commissioner job] and Texas, or just the way I built this team — it’s brand-new. That was important to me on a personal level.”
Still, when people approach him at campaign events, it is often to talk about his name and what it means to them.
“I love your grandmother,” Myrna Dozier told him at a Republican women’s event in San Antonio. “I cried when your grandfather lost that election.” She pulled out her smartphone to show him pictures of her grandson.
He is often badgered for the inside scoop on whether his father is going to run for president in 2016. That is a subject that has put George P. into awkward positions. At a Texas Tribune forum in September, he was asked whether he would endorse Jeb, should he run. The younger Bush, strangely, declined to say — though later he told Politico, “I would obviously vote for him and support him.”
Bush insists, as he must, that the land commissioner’s job is the only one he is thinking about right now, but it seems everyone else is gaming out his future. Will he run for attorney general in 2018? The Senate in 2020?
A governor’s race somewhere down the road seems almost inevitable — maybe against the other party’s rising Latino star, former San Antonio mayor and current Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro.
“It’s the battle of the titans that everyone sees coming down the pike,” said the Houston Chronicle’s Cohen. “Castro vs. Bush.”
Washington Post staffers David Fahrenthold and Alice Crites contributed to this report.