WILL WEISSERT, Associated Press
AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — The latest scion of one of America’s most powerful political dynasties is trying to convince voters he’s something other than what his famous surname suggests.
George P. Bush, the 37-year-old grandson of one former president and nephew of another, is launching his political career by running for Texas’ little-known but powerful land commissioner post.
But rather than campaigning on the mainstream Republicanism embodied by the family name, Bush says he’s “a movement conservative” more in line with the tea party.
As if to underscore the point, he says he draws the most inspiration not from the administrations of his grandfather, George H. W. Bush, or his uncle, George W. Bush, but from former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who engineered the 1994 Republican takeover of that chamber.
“On social questions, national defense, economic issues, I’m a strong conservative,” Bush told The Associated Press.
That kind of statement helps make him the latest — and perhaps one of the more unlikely — faces in the parade of Republicans marching even farther to the right in already fiercely conservative Texas.
As he takes baby steps away from the Bush legacy, George P. could struggle to convince the party’s far right that he’s really more conservative than either of his elders who have occupied the Oval Office.
“A Bush can’t be a true conservative,” said Morgan McComb, a North Texas tea party activist and organizer.
Bush insists that he’s up to the challenge, noting that he was an early supporter of tea party hero Sen. Ted Cruz, who after less than a year in the Senate has rocketed from relative political unknown to ruler of the Texas GOP.
“That’s something that we bring to the table that’s different,” Bush said. “We’re a mainstream conservative that appeals to all Republicans.”
James Bernsen, Cruz’s former campaign spokesman, said the Bushes “walk in certain circles, and some of those people might put their nose up at Ted sometimes, but George P. tries to cross that divide.”
“George recognizes that it’s a blessing and a curse to have that last name,” Bernsen said. “There’s a reason he’s not really being challenged on the ballot. But he also realizes there’s a lot of people who will be very skeptical of him.”
The Texas land commissioner administers state-owned lands and mineral resources that help pay for public education statewide. The position can be a springboard to higher office. The incumbent commissioner, Jerry Patterson, is running for lieutenant governor. And the incumbent lieutenant governor he’s challenging, David Dewhurst, served as land commissioner before winning his current job.
Squaring off against Bush are former El Paso Democratic Mayor John Cook and Republican East Texas businessman David Watts. But Bush has raked in more than $3.3 million and is expected to cruise to victory both in the Republican primary in March and the November general election.
Republicans have not lost a statewide race in Texas since 1994.
But Bush’s rightward drift comes with risks. It might hurt his image as a next-generation Republican who could reach out to Texas’ booming Hispanic population. Bush is a fluent Spanish speaker whose mother, Columba, was born in Mexico.
Hispanics vote overwhelmingly Democratic, but Bush said many also agree with the GOP on social issues, opposing abortion and large government.
“I’m willing to stand behind this concept, that as conservatives we can win the Hispanic vote without selling out the values,” Bush said. “I don’t think we need to compromise.”
Bush says he wants to embody conservative activism while still leaving room to govern. He refused to endorse the Cruz-led effort to defund the White House’s health care overhaul, which sparked a partial government shutdown. Bush called the measure “a monstrosity” but also said the only option left was to look for market-based solutions to reform it.
“We need to get back to being the party of solutions,” Bush said. Gingrich’s leadership in 1994 “was the last great case study where you saw a conservative party that came forward with solutions on the big issues of the day.”
Born in Houston, Bush grew up in Florida, where his father, Jeb, was governor from 1998 until 2007. After college, he taught school in inner-city Miami, worked on his uncle’s presidential campaign and earned a law degree from the University of Texas. He also clerked for a federal judge and founded a capital company in Fort Worth, where he now lives. In 2010, he served an eight-month tour in Afghanistan with naval intelligence under an assumed name for security reasons.
Those close to the Bushes shrugged off any suggestion that some family members might be irked to see George P. distancing himself from the clan.
“The only thing the Bush family cares about is that George P. follow his convictions, whatever they are,” said Mark McKinnon, a GOP strategist and former advisor to George W. Bush’s presidential campaigns.
Karen Hughes, a former spokeswoman and diplomat for the George W. Bush White House, said any candidate runs “based on his or her fundamental values and priorities, and that is true regardless of your last name.”
Others who know the family said Gingrich’s “Contract With America,” which was on the cutting edge of activist conservatism in 1994, is now far more mainstream for the GOP as a whole — including the Bushes.
Still, Cathie Adams, president of the Texas Eagle Forum, a socially conservative activist group, said Bush’s claiming of the movement conservative mantle isn’t credible given the shadow his family has cast over state and national politics for so long.
However, while many tea party backers remain enraged that Bush’s uncle ran up enormous federal deficits and oversaw the bank bailout, they are unwilling to turn their back on the family, Adams acknowledged.
“I think Texans are very respectful of the gentlemen in politics, the kindness and compassion that the family has earned over a long period of time,” she said.
Those sentiments will probably extend to George P. too, she added, “even though it should not be that way.”