Will the Bush Dynasty End Tonight?

The new hope. Photo: Eric Gay/AP/Shutterstock

Ken Paxton, the attorney general of Texas, has been under indictment since 2015. Two years ago, his top aides resigned en masse, accusing him of corruption. Last year, he spoke at the January 6 rally preceding the attack on the Capitol, sharing false claims about the presidential election. And this year, he’s likely to end the Bush political dynasty.

His leading opponent for reelection is George P. Bush, who represents the fourth generation of his family in political office. The son of Jeb Bush and nephew of George W. Bush, the 45-year-old heir, has served two terms as Texas’s land commissioner. If he loses, it would represent a crippling blow to a political dynasty that has produced two presidents and been a fixture of Texas politics for more than half a century. In the pre-Trump area, Bush would have been considered the model Republican candidate. His mother, Columba, immigrated from Mexico, and he speaks fluent Spanish. As a naval reservist, he was deployed to Afghanistan and practiced law and worked in private equity before cruising to victory in 2014 to become the state’s land commissioner.

Bush announced his bid to take on Paxton last year, denouncing the incumbent as corrupt. The scandal that the attorney general faced was seedy and lurid: Paxton had been accused of using his office to help a wealthy real-estate developer who had hired his alleged mistress and allegedly remodeled the attorney general’s house. In contrast, Bush was running as a young statewide elected official of Hispanic heritage, a famous last name, and the ability to tap into one of the most formidable fundraising networks in American politics.

But Bush didn’t have the one thing that made all the difference: the endorsement of Donald Trump, who dangled the possibility in front of Bush before his announcement, saying in a statement, “I like them both very much. I’ll be making my endorsement and recommendation to the great people of Texas in the not-so-distant future.” Bush had courted the former president heavily — he broke with the rest of family to support and campaign for Trump in 2016 despite Trump’s personal attacks on both his parents in the Republican presidential primary, including retweeting that Jeb “has to like Mexican illegals” because of his wife’s heritage. Bush maintained this support in 2020 and actively courted Trump’s endorsement for the attorney-general race. He even distributed a campaign koozie featuring Trump’s 2019 praise for him as “the only Bush that likes me.”

Shortly after Bush’s announcement, a poll showed a single-digit margin between him and the troubled incumbent. However, weeks later, Trump offered Paxton his “complete and total endorsement,” and Paxton has led by a healthy margin ever since. He is favored to make the runoff in the Republican primary election on Tuesday, if not to get the 50 percent of the vote needed to win the nomination for a third term outright.

But it wasn’t just Trump’s endorsement that helped the scandal-plagued incumbent; it may have been the scandal itself. One Texas Republican familiar with the race noted that the allegations themselves helped Paxton because they recalled what Republican voters view as the unfair investigations of Trump. “None of it really ever stuck,” says the Texas Republican. “People viewed it as a hit on Trump. The average Texas conservative viewed it as a hit on Trump.” Paxton is also lucky. The other candidates “have all been banking on [Paxton] getting indicted,” says Matt Mackowiak, an Austin-based Republican consultant, but that hasn’t happened.

Other strong candidates emerged in the race, sensing weakness in the top two candidates. Eva Guzman, a former state-supreme-court justice who received more votes than any other statewide candidate on the ballot, announced her bid last summer. Louie Gohmert, a ten-term congressman who has been one of Trump’s most ardent defenders on Capitol Hill, jumped into the race weeks ago.

Both saw paths to victory with Paxton ensnared by controversies and Bush weighed down by generational baggage. “There was a time when the Bush name was powerful both with donors and with voters, but now, increasingly, it is powerful only with a shrinking number of donors,” says Mackowiak. Its limitations were made clear in a suburban-Houston congressional primary in 2020 where Pierce Bush, a nephew of both George W. and Jeb, finished a distant third. One Republican operative in the state saw Bush’s last name as “a double-edged sword” — it gave Bush access to a massive fundraising network and a built-in base among Establishment Republicans, but it also rendered him toxic with Trumpy voters, who associate the Bush last name more with failed wars and low-energy candidates than past glories.

Bush’s immediate problem is not Paxton, though. Guzman and Gohmert are both trying to edge him out, finish second in the primary, and force Paxton into a runoff, where either might be able to overcome him. A recent public poll showed Paxton on the knife’s edge of avoiding a runoff, with Bush in second. However, private polls have shown Guzman coming up strong in recent days, with the potential for her to beat out Bush for second place. The prospect is concerning for Paxton, who is already launching a late negative push against her as “too woke for Texas” and attacking her as a proponent of critical-race theory. From the incumbent’s perspective, a runoff against Bush would be a cakewalk, while the other two candidates would offer more vigorous competition.

Democrats, though, remain hopeful that the chaos may be enough to finally turn the state blue. “The Texas GOP-AG primary is a messy race to the far-right, and Ken Paxton, amid his indictment and legal troubles, is in the horrible position of spending millions of dollars to defend himself,” says Geoff Burgan, the spokesperson for the Democratic Attorney Generals Association. “No matter who else advances to the runoff, this is a nightmare scenario for Texas Republicans.”

In the meantime, Bush can take one bit of solace. His father, grandfather and great-grandfather all went on to further success in the Republican Party after they suffered losses running for statewide office. Then again, they weren’t running in Trump’s party.

Will the Bush Dynasty End Tonight?