GOP loyalties strained as four Texans ponder presidential bids in 2016

Karen Tumulty (c) 2014, The Washington Post. AUSTIN, Texas — The next presidential election is more than two years away, but things are already getting awkward in the Lone Star State, where at least four potential Republican contenders have deep roots.

Even in Texas, there may not be room enough for all of them — as became apparent during a three-day political conference over the weekend, sponsored by the Texas Tribune.

At the opening session Friday night, George P. Bush — a rising GOP star considered a shoo-in to win his first elective office this fall as state land commissioner — was asked whether he would endorse his father, should former Florida Governor Jeb Bush decide to make a bid.

Easy question, right?

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Having demurred that “I’m staying out of that race,” the younger Bush said of his dad: “I think folks know that I love him.”

Yes, the Bushes are a famously close-knit clan. But family dynamics are more than a little tricky these days for the Texas Republicans.

The party’s dominance is such that no Democrat has won statewide office in 20 years, and that streak is expected to continue this fall. Within the Republican base, however, there are strains, which are likely to intensify as 2016 approaches.

Gov. Rick Perry and the state’s junior senator, Ted Cruz, are making regular trips to the early primary and caucus states. So is Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, a native Texan whose father spent decades as a Houston-area congressman.

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And, of course, the Bush name — and network — is the gold standard of Texas politics. It has produced two presidents, one of whom was also a governor.

“We may be in the middle of a drought here, but it sure hasn’t dried up ego and ambition,” said John Weaver, a veteran GOP strategist.

For Texans, the situation is reminiscent of the loyalty test that took place in 1980, when former Governor John Connally and former congressman George H.W. Bush ran in the Republican presidential primary. Connally famously spent more than anyone else in the race — the then-astounding sum of $12 million — and came out with one convention delegate to show for it. Bush also fell short, but got the consolation prize, the second spot on Ronald Reagan’s ticket, which set him on his own path to the Oval Office.

In 1992, Bush lost his bid for reelection, in part because yet another Texan, billionaire H. Ross Perot, ran as an independent and got nearly 20 percent of the vote.

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That so many Texans could be in the Republican mix for 2016 says as much about the evolving, unsettled identity of the party as it does about the depth of its bench here.

Perry is the state’s longest-serving governor and was early to recognize the power of the tea party. But his first run for the White House in 2012 was a disaster, as he lamented with a quip: “The weakest Republican field in history — and they kicked my butt!”

On Sunday, he was more sober as he reflected on that experience during the closing session of the Texas Tribune festival.

Although he insisted he has not yet decided whether to run, “I went through a very humbling and very frustrating process in 2011 and 2012. I learned some very, for me, harsh lessons,” Perry said. Chief among them: It takes preparation.

So this time around, Perry is boning up on policy. He is refining the narrative of the state’s strong economic performance during his tenure. The governor also ordered 1,000 National Guard troops to the border along the Rio Grande River, which his strategists believe will strengthen his credibility on the immigration issue.

Perry deflected a question about if and how Cruz’s entry in the race would affect his own calculation.

But if both state officials run, “it really complicates things for money raising between Ted Cruz and Rick Perry,” said Matthew Dowd, who was chief strategist for George W. Bush’s 2004 reelection campaign. “There’s a lot of money in Texas for the Republican nominee, but there’s a limited number of people who get tapped.”

Cruz is a phenomenon unlike anything in Texas memory. Two years ago, he came from seemingly nowhere and defeated the establishment favorite in the Republican primary for his Senate seat.

Among those who were earliest to endorse Cruz was George P. Bush, who said at the time: “Ted is the future of the Republican Party.”

He dominates conservative grass-roots politics in the state and is seen as one of the main reasons that the entire Texas GOP has moved sharply to the right. At the state party convention in June, Cruz was the runaway winner of a straw poll for president — getting about four times as many votes as either Perry or Paul.

But one question is how well his fire-breathing populism will play on a national stage. And in thumbing his nose at the establishment, he has left behind a trail of ill feelings.

Cruz declined, for example, to endorse the state’s senior senator, Republican whip John Cornyn, during this year’s Republican primary — though Cornyn won handily anyway against a tea party challenger.

At his own session at the Texas Tribune Festival on Saturday, Cornyn was asked about the Texans who are thinking about running in 2016.

Cornyn did not name Cruz, but it was hard to miss what he was suggesting about his Senate colleague when he posited: “Maybe the experience we’ve seen with President Obama — who moved quickly through the Senate without actually serving a full term as senator, then running for president — and the deficit in his own resume when it came to actually running a state like governors do is something the voters will weigh in their minds.”

Cornyn also said he blamed Cruz, “among others,” for a 2013 government shutdown that “didn’t turn out so well. What people want is for the government to function and not to throw temper tantrums and say we’re not going to play ball.”

Paul is also a first-term senator, albeit one with a tenure two years longer than Cruz. Both are tea party heroes, and Paul also has the potential to rally the libertarians, who lately account for much of the energy in the Republican base nationally.

Republican strategists agree that the biggest game-changer could be a decision by Jeb Bush to run. He would instantly become the man to beat — though the Bush name is both an advantage and a burden.

“It’s looking like a lot of roads could lead to and through Texas for the 2016 GOP primary, which seems appropriate as Texas is in many ways defining the contours of the conservative movement today,” former George W. Bush adviser Mark McKinnon said in an email. “But it also means the candidates will be like bumper cars running into each other while fighting for an inside track in the Lone Star state.”

As for Jeb Bush, he has said his decision will hinge in part on whether he could make the run “with joy in my heart.” And as he searches his heart, at least three other native Texans holding their breath.