There is a striking photo from the victory rally that George H. W. Bush hosted in Houston on November 9, 1988, to celebrate his landslide victory in the presidential election. On Bush’s right stands his beaming eldest son, George W., the future governor of Texas who would follow in his father’s footsteps to the Oval Office. To the president-elect’s left is a rather somber-looking 12-year-old child of olive complexion and black hair who resembles a Latino altar boy straight out of central casting. He is the president-elect’s grandson, George P. Bush, son of future Florida Governor Jeb Bush. The mise-en-scène’s implicit message that evening could scarcely be missed: Behold the three generations of a family who aspire to power. It was fitting. The Bushes would eventually eclipse the Kennedys as the most consequential dynasty in the history of postwar U.S. politics.
Their protean nature has given the Bushes a bigger footprint than the Kennedys. While the Kennedys have always run as Irish Catholics on the East Coast—Jack was a congressman and senator from Massachusetts; Bobby, a senator from New York—the Bushes have been more national in scope. Prescott Bush was a Republican U.S. senator from Connecticut. His son George H. W., came up through Texas politics, as did his son and future President George W. Jeb made his stand in Florida as a can-do conservative and a Catholic convert. George P. is a Hispanic politician in a state that’s 40 percent Hispanic.
Once upon a time, the name Bush counted for something in the Lone Star State. It conferred on its holder access to seemingly endless campaign cash and pole position in any presidential, congressional, or statewide election race. But those days are long gone, and today George P. Bush is waging an uphill battle to wrest the GOP nomination for Texas attorney general away from the incumbent Ken Paxton. Currently in his second term as state land commissioner, Bush—frequently referred to as “P.” in local Republican circles—ran a distant second to Paxton in the March 1 primary. However, Paxton’s failure to garner an outright majority forced a runoff vote on May 24.
The outlook for the Bush scion isn’t bullish. A mid-March poll sponsored by the Texas Hispanic Policy Foundation found Paxton enjoying a 42-point lead over George P. among likely Republican voters. Bush ran a distant second among whites, women, and even Hispanics, despite the Mexican roots of his mother, Columba. The poll revealed how degraded the Bush brand has become in Texas: Two in five of the Republicans surveyed said they would never vote for George P.—and the main reason they cited was his lineage.
“While George H. W., George W., and Jeb have stayed pretty much where they have been politically, the Republican Party in Texas has moved significantly more to the right,” says Mark Jones, a political scientist at Rice University. “George P. is a Bush, he owes his current status to the fact that he is one, and Bushes are seen as moderates.”
Still, the 46-year-old Bush’s failure to generate a groundswell of support this year is puzzling given the sleaze and scandal hounding his opponent. Best known nationally for the failed lawsuits he filed to overturn Joe Biden’s victory over Donald Trump in four swing states in 2020, Paxton was indicted seven years ago on criminal securities fraud charges that are still pending. A wealthy Austin real estate developer who donated $25,000 to Paxton’s war chest in 2014 acknowledged in a deposition that he hired a woman who had an extramarital affair with Paxton after the state’s chief law enforcement officer recommended her for the job. The FBI is probing accusations of bribery and abuse of power against Paxton that surfaced in a whistleblower lawsuit brought by four of his erstwhile senior aides. “The most basic qualifications of an attorney general are respect for truth and respect for the law,” the plaintiffs asserted in a statement issued last February. “Ken Paxton has neither.”
Paxton does hold the ultimate ace in today’s transformed Republican Party: the coveted imprimatur of the 45th president of the United States. George P. made a concerted effort to secure Trump’s seal of approval. His first campaign video sang Trump’s praises for making “our country strong and vibrant again.” The event that kicked off his bid for Paxton’s job in June 2021 featured the distribution of red koozies showing George P. in silhouette shaking hands with Trump above quotes of the Donald declaring, “This is the only Bush that likes me! This is the Bush that got it right!” The son of the man who was ridiculed by Trump as “low-energy Jeb” on the hustings six years ago and whose mother’s compatriots Trump branded as “rapists” loudly parroted some of the most cherished mantras of the MAGAverse. George P. pledged to promote completion of the border wall along the Rio Grande and issued stark warnings about the possibility of “massive” voter fraud.
Bush’s attempts to curry favor with the former president have put him at odds with a number of his close relatives. They include his uncle George and aunt Laura, who refused to vote for Trump in 2016. The former first lady publicly criticized Trump for separating migrant children from their undocumented parents at the southern border. But George P.’s groveling courtship of Trump came to nothing: Within weeks of Bush’s campaign kickoff last June, the former president had anointed Paxton as his man.
“Texas politics is in an Alice in Wonderland moment where up is down and down is up,” says Robert Rivard, a veteran Texas journalist and founder of the nonprofit San Antonio Report. “Paxton has been under criminal indictment for nearly seven years, which has had no noticeable impact on his political standing. George P. Bush has disowned his moderate stances of the past and the party values of his grandfather, father, and uncle to adopt Trump-like attacks on immigration and border security. It’s a flip-flop that seems to be getting him nowhere.”
Nowhere is right. George P. has mounted a lackluster effort thus far this spring. No major TV ad blitz has yet to materialize, even though early voting began on May 16. No prominent kinsman has been pressing the flesh on George P.’s behalf, even though the 43rd president will appear at a fund-raiser for one of Trump’s leading bêtes noires, Georgia’s embattled Republican governor, Brian Kemp. The last press release issued by George P.’s campaign was dated April 28. It contained a bizarre pronouncement by Bush that Texas must assert its “sovereignty” in the face of surging numbers of foreigners seeking to enter the country “and immediately declare an invasion under the U.S. Constitution.” (The Republic of Texas formally renounced its sovereignty when the U.S. government annexed it in 1846.)
Multiple requests from the Washington Monthly for an interview went unanswered. But in the appearances he has made on local media outlets in recent days, George P. comes across as an earnest, unassuming family man who will restore integrity to the attorney general’s office. “It’s not conservative to cheat on your wife, to throw the Constitution out the window, [or] to take bribes from financial donors, which is what this attorney general has done,” Bush told the Austin TV station KVUE on May 8. “I’m a Christian. I’m a father and a husband. I’m very plain and simple. I’m going to be an attorney general that is above reproach, that will take my vows seriously to my wife, to the Constitution, to the laws of this state.”
For his part, Paxton makes no secret about his resolve to bury the Bush family. “It’s time for the dynasty to end,” he said on a conservative talk radio station in Lubbock after the first round of balloting in March. “The Bushes have had their chance. I think a lot of Republicans have had enough of it.”
Will a decisive defeat of George P. Bush signal the end of an era for a family whose presence on the national stage of U.S. politics dates back to his great-grandfather Prescott’s election to the U.S. Senate in 1952? Neil’s son Pierce was the only other Bush of his generation to seek elected office. He unsuccessfully ran for Congress in 2020 but failed to win the party’s nomination. Neither of George W. Bush’s twin daughters has expressed an interest in running for office.
But many Texas Republicans believe that any prediction of the dynasty’s demise may be premature. Some recall how 43 overcame a history of alcohol abuse and defeat in a 1978 congressional race to win the governorship 16 years later. “It’s a function of who’s on the [Bush family] bench,” says Jerry Patterson, George P.’s predecessor as state land commissioner, who failed to stop Bush from winning a second term four years ago. “I don’t think P. has any political future in Texas. But memories are short, and if the dynasty ends, it’s not because George loses. It’s because there isn’t anyone on the bench.”