Once Bush officially failed to secure the most coveted endorsement in all of Republican politics, many started to wonder if he had a backup plan. The Bush campaign did not respond to a request from the Houston Press for an interview with Bush or for a comment from a member of his team about the land commissioner’s uncertain path forward.
Despite being embroiled in multiple scandals during his time in office (he is still under indictment for alleged securities fraud, and is under FBI investigation over dealings with a donor), Paxton remains a formidable opponent based on his years of successful advocacy for right-wing policies, Texas politics experts who spoke with the Press agree. And that's even before he got Trump's endorsement.
And it hasn't helped that during his time at the head of the state's General Land Office, Bush has stumbled more than once, most notably over how the Alamo should be managed, his office's handling of Hurricane Harvey home repairs in Black neighborhoods and more recently in distributing federal flood rehab dollars — none of which originally went to Houston or Harris County.
Paxton aside, Bush would still also have to defeat Eva Guzman, the former Texas Supreme Court Justice who seems to be running a more moderate campaign (she never appeared to be campaigning for Trump’s endorsement).
Some political gurus feel it is too early to write off Bush’s chances, but concede it seems more likely than not that Bush won't be able to win the nomination now that Paxton has Trump’s endorsement. Others believe Bush’s failure to win Trump’s endorsement could prove to be fatal to his near-term political future.
Rice University political scientist Mark Jones says Bush’s whiff on winning Trump’s endorsement is likely to have “mortally wounded the Bush campaign, up to the point where it wouldn't even be surprising if, depending on what the polling numbers show in December, that in the end he decides to drop out.”
Local Democratic consultant Marc Campos predicts that if Bush fails in his current campaign, “his political career will be over.”
“As long as Donald Trump’s on the scene, you’re gonna have the Republican Party and elected officials, most of them, behaving the way they’re behaving. And so there really won’t be any room for Bush,” he argues.
While Bush now clearly faces an even tougher path toward becoming Texas’ next top cop, neither local Republican consultant Jessica Colón nor University of Houston political scientist Brandon Rottinghaus are ready to completely write off Bush’s chances in the AG race.
“Commissioner Bush’s challenge in this campaign is to prove to primary voters that he will be a stronger advocate of conservative policies than General Paxton. That’s going to be a very steep hill for him or any other contender to climb,” says Colón, who isn’t surprised at all that Trump ultimately sided with Paxton.
Even though folks like Jones who think Paxton is “a walking embarrassment” given his still-lingering indictment for securities fraud from several years ago, the current FBI investigation into whether or not he used his office to benefit a wealthy donor and his failed attempt to get the U.S. Supreme Court to throw out the election results in battleground states that cost Trump his reelection, Paxton still has a track record of fighting hard for conservative priorities like limiting abortion and pushing back against supposedly lax federal immigration laws.
Rottinghaus admits that while Trump’s endorsement “puts Paxton in pole-position,” it’s still a long race. “We’ve got from now until March, and a lot of things can happen in the meantime.”
That said, Rottinghaus doesn’t see a clear path forward for Bush to pull off an upset against Paxton at this point, due in large part to Bush’s inability to define himself to Texas voters.
“He’s in ideological and political limbo,” Rottinghaus says.
In his effort to convince Trump and Republican primary voters that he is conservative enough to be a viable alternative to Paxton, Bush has been hammering the message that he was the only member of the Bush dynasty to support the former President. Bush notably endorsed Trump in 2016 after the former president ruthlessly mocked Bush’s father, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, throughout the campaign, leading some to wonder if Bush values his own political ambitions over standing up for his family.
In a move that was cringeworthy at the time and even more embarrassing in retrospect, Bush even handed out koozies at his campaign kickoff rally emblazoned with a picture of Trump and Bush shaking hands, that quoted Trump calling him “the only Bush that likes me,” and “the Bush that got it right.”
“I felt like Commissioner Bush humiliated himself by going through that process,” Campos says, referring to the aforementioned koozies and Bush’s desperate-seeming attempts to tie himself to the former president (to this day, Bush has pinned to the top of his Twitter feed a photo of him grinning alongside Trump during a mid-July meeting).
I missed out on the @georgepbush swag yesterday: The koozie says "this is the only Bush that likes me. This is the Bush that got it right. I like him" - Donald Trump #txlege pic.twitter.com/pFTzQCmoRG— Scott Braddock (@scottbraddock) June 3, 2021
Even Colón agrees that the Trump-quoting campaign freebies were a bad call. “Those koozies were very presumptuous, to say the least,” she says.
The impulse to cater so strongly toward Trump-loving Texas Republican primary voters makes sense, especially after Bush drew the ire of many state conservatives through his spats with Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick over their competing views on how best to renovate the Alamo. Patrick and others accused Bush of wanting to rewrite the history of the famed Texas battleground, and amid a conspiracy theory that Bush wanted to erect a statue of Mexican general Santa Anna, Bush accused those pushing the rumor of racism based on his Mexican-American heritage.
Bush was probably also hoping a Trump-endorsement could have distracted from recent news that his General Land Office was attempting to rebuild homes in Black Houston neighborhoods destroyed by Hurricane Harvey with fewer bedrooms than the original homes had, and a report that the long-term living facilities for elderly veterans Bush’s office oversees had disconcertingly high rates of COVID-19 deaths.
Even before he entered the race, Bush was blasted by both Democrats and Republicans alike when neither Houston nor Harris County received a cent of funding from the massive pot of Harvey relief cash his General Land Office was tasked with doling out by the feds.
At first Bush denied his office was responsible for writing the funding allocation formula that deprioritized large urban zones like the Houston area, and publicly questioned whether or not city and county officials had properly filled out all their paperwork. Once it became clear that the funding formula was indeed written by Bush’s office, he backtracked by trying to blame the Biden administration, and begged the federal government to carve out $750 million for Harris County flood projects after facing widespread pressure.
Bush’s inconsistent story around his role in the Houston area flood relief fiasco is reminiscent of other inconsistencies he’s shown during his short tenure in statewide politics (he was first elected land commissioner in 2015). Similar to how he pushed back against the absurd Santa Anna statue rumor, Bush vocally decried the racist rhetoric espoused by the El Paso Wal-Mart shooter in 2019, who murdered 23 residents in the largely Hispanic city after posting online about the “Hispanic invasion” at the border.
“You’ve got [the same] George P. Bush who after the El Paso shootings is saying that this sort of rhetoric against immigrants is wrong. He did the same thing during the fight over the Alamo, sort of protecting his racial heritage. Then he turns around and demonizes what is happening at the border in a way that you see other Republicans doing,” Rottinghaus says, citing a recent Bush tweet about the alleged current “invasion” of immigrants at the border.
“This just underscores the fact that George P. Bush is in ideological limbo, and that’s not a good space to be in for him in a fierce Republican primary,” he says.
RGV Border Patrol Agents work tirelessly to protect our communities from the dangers of open borders. This level of invasion is unsustainable. https://t.co/07YZaQaC6v— George P. Bush (@georgepbush) July 27, 2021
Campos thinks it was a mistake for Bush to challenge Paxton in the first place given his unique status as a member of political dynasty once beloved in Texas but now viewed warily by many diehard Trump supporters who tried and failed to convince Trump he was the best AG candidate to carry the MAGA-vision forward in Texas.
“It’s gonna be tough for him to survive in the Republican Party,” Campos says. “It would have been wise for him to just hunker down and remain as land commissioner until a lot of this Trump stuff blows over. I don’t know what he was thinking when he decided to run for attorney general.” He believes Paxton has the Trump supporter vote locked down at this point, and thinks Guzman is better positioned to win the votes of any Republicans who aren’t fond of the former president (Jones and Rottinghaus both agree).
If Bush fails in the attorney general race, Campos, Jones and Rottinghaus all think Bush might exit the public spotlight for a while and seek some lucrative job in the private sector, just like his father did after losing to Trump in 2016. Rottinghaus points out that it’s too late in this cycle for him to run for another statewide race, and that it might be a savvy move for Bush to bide his time until the current crop of Republicans atop the state party — Gov. Greg Abbott, Patrick and Paxton — potentially move on, as difficult as that may be for the clearly ambitious politico.
“It’s gonna be tough for him to survive in the Republican Party. It would have been wise for him to just hunker down and remain as land commissioner until a lot of this Trump stuff blows over. I don’t know what he was thinking when he decided to run for attorney general.” - Marc Campos, Democratic campaign consultant
“He can wait out the rest of the Republican field until they retire,” says Rottinghaus, who predicts “a re-shuffling of statewide officials” in the next few years. “Patrick won’t run again after this cycle, he’ll be done. I think Abbott’s probably in the same boat, and he may have a national office in his sights, and so you’re going to have at least two of those spots that are open.”
“Paxton may choose to move up, assuming he’s not in jail, or disinterested,” he continues.
He could also run for Congress, both Rottinghaus and Jones say. Texas is poised to earn two new congressional seats in the House of Representatives thanks to the recent U.S. Census, but with redistricting coming up later this year, there’s no telling what all of Texas’ districts will look like and which could be most appealing for Bush.
There’s a good chance Bush and his family would have to move out of Austin for that to happen — “The rumors are that they’re going to turn Austin into one district, and that’ll be a Democratic district,” Rottinghaus says.
“That’s always an option, running for Congress,” Jones agrees. “Another,” he continues, “is to go to the private sector to make some money, and then waiting to see if you have a Republican [presidential] administration take office in 2025” if Biden loses his next race, which would leave an opening for Bush to angle “for some type of relatively high-profile position there.”
Colón doesn’t think that a defeat in the attorney general race would doom Bush from holding future statewide office, even given the current climate of Republican politics in the Lone Star State.
“He is young, and has a lot of future in front of him. If he wanted to run for another office at another time, I think Texas voters would give him a chance in the [Republican] primary,” Colón says.
“If this race doesn’t work out, I don’t think it’s the last that we’ll hear from George P. Bush,” Colón says.