Bush Scion’s House Race Tests Value of Family Name in Trump Era

A House primary in suburban Houston will provide the latest test of the Bush family name’s political worth in the age of Trump.

On March 3, Pierce Bush, grandson of former President George H.W. Bush, will face a field populated with candidates who’ve already declared themselves in step with the White House.

Hours prior to the Dec. 9 candidate filing deadline, the 33-year-old son of Neil Bush joined 16 others seeking the GOP nomination for Texas’ 22nd District, which six-term Rep. Pete Olson opted against defending after holding off Democratic challenger Sri Preston Kulkarni by only 5 points in 2018.

While the most-storied name in state politics is expected to generate a monetary spark, whether it translates to long-term fundraising superiority and will resonate with suburban voters in both the primary and general election remains an open question — one affected by whether the family’s most well-known political figures and their allies go to bat for the latest scion.

“We’ll see whether the family retainers — the key local leaders and donors that have stood with one or more generations of the Bush family in Texas politics — rally to him,” said Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

(Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images for UNICEF)
Pierce Bush with Sara Beth Bush at the Fifth Annual UNICEF Gala Houston in 2018.

The “key” for Pierce Bush, he said, is whether former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, former President George W. Bush, or Bush presidential confidant James A. Baker activate the donor network on the candidate’s behalf, which could energize Houston Republicans and give him a competitive fundraising advantage.

For his part, Pierce Bush said the political contest was about issues rather than pedigree.

“This race is definitely not about anyone’s name —it’s about who can best serve the people of the 22nd District by delivering solutions,” Bush said in an emailed statement.

Those solutions, he said, would focus on national security, economic growth expansion, lowered healthcare costs and to “ultimately get Congress focused on doing its job instead of endlessly attacking the President.”

Republican supporters say the Bush family name is as popular as ever in Texas and instantly makes him a top-tier candidate. But one expert in Texas politics said it may also be a liability as a throwback to a different-looking Republican Party once dominated by its establishment, country club wing. That’s given way to Trump’s populist style and message, which are embraced by a working class base.

“Everything about the Bush family from their more genteel and respectful and presidential demeanor to their more moderate policies is a contrast with Donald Trump and his presidency,” said Mark P. Jones, a Baker Institute Fellow in political science at Rice University in Houston.

The GOP led by former President George H.W. Bush has almost no bearing on the major decisions, directions and policies in the present day Texas Republican Party, leaving it frequently on the outside looking in. “Its only real influence today would probably be through the ability to write large checks,” Jones said. “In terms of raw voters, it’s irrelevant in almost all legislative districts across the state.”

Commands Loyalty

Others say the Bush brand has retained its political luster.

“I think the Bush family still commands loyalty and respect throughout the country — not just Texas,” said Matt Gorman, a Republican consultant who worked on Jeb Bush’s 2016 campaign. “That will certainly help with raising the money needed to run a competitive race.”

“Obviously George W. Bush and Jeb have their own huge national network and fundraising apparatus,” Austin-based GOP consultant Brendan Steinhauser said. “Not being the son of the governor or the former president, does that slow the flow of money? Potentially. I don’t know for sure.”

Although the comfortable 2018 re-election of Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush, the son of Jeb Bush, offers a current example of the family’s political successes, Pierce Bush will face the challenge of running in an increasingly competitive district that includes the ethnically diverse suburbs of Fort Bend County southwest of Houston.

While Trump carried the district by a 52-44% margin in 2016, Sen. Ted Cruz(R-Texas) in 2018 only edged out Democrat Beto O’Rourke by a 50-49% margin there.

‘Selfishness and Ugly’

Prominent members of the Bush clan have long been at odds with Trump, including family matriarch Barbara Bush, who wrote in her diary in 1990 that the real estate magnate “now means greed, selfishness and ugly,” according to a biography of the former first lady .

Bush, who died in 2018, was also incensed at Trump’s ridicule of her son during the 2016 presidential primaries and wrote in Jeb’s name in early voting instead of Trump or Hillary Clinton. Her husband and son George W. Bush also declined to vote for Trump.

Trump has been selective in his praise of Bush family members, introducing George P. Bush at an April 2019 event in Texas “as the only Bush who got it right.”

When asked about Trump, Pierce Bush told the Texas Tribune he “would support his agenda and his policies, and I look forward to being a team player in Washington.”

Among those running in the crowded primary are candidates who’ve voiced their support for the president, including Fort Bend County Sheriff Troy Nehls, Brazoria County court-at-law Judge Greg Hill and self-financed candidate Kathaleen Wall. There will be a runoff in the event a candidate doesn’t garner a majority of the primary vote. If that happens, the top two vote-recipients will spar in a May 26 showdown for the nomination.

“I would expect that Pierce Bush would probably make a runoff,” Jillson said. “I’d be a little bit surprised if he weren’t the nominee, but not extraordinarily so, because there are other capable people in the race,” he added.

A nonprofit executive, Bush has faced criticism for deciding to move to the 22nd District to run for an open seat after first considering a bid for the neighboring 7th District seat once held by his grandfather. Rep. Lizzie Fletcher flipped the 7th into the Democratic column in 2018.

It would make little difference in the general election if the Democratic candidate faces a Bush or an outspoken Trump supporter, said Tara Pohlmeyer, spokeswoman for Progress Texas, a liberal advocacy nonprofit.

“When it comes to a Bush versus a more Trump-leaning nominee on the Republican side, no matter who the nominee is they will have to face the fact the Republican Party is now the party of Trump,” she said. “They will have to work with Trump voters as well as Trump himself if they are going to be the nominee.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Paul Stinson in Austin, Texas at pstinson@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Kyle Trygstad at ktrygstad@bgov.com; Bennett Roth at broth@bgov.com