WACO, Texas — On a recent afternoon, as McLennan County Republicans polished off their barbecue, the head of the local GOP worked his way through the group’s luncheon agenda. A plaque was presented. A local judge spotlighted. The fertilizer plant explosion in nearby West, Texas, was discussed.
Only then, after 30 minutes or so, did the featured speaker take his brief turn at the microphone.
If it seemed a comedown after a lifetime spent near the pinnacle of politics, bunking at the White House and growing up a prince amid Republican royalty, George P. Bush never let on.
He is the fourth generation to enter the family business: Great-grandpa was a U.S. senator, grandpa and an uncle were presidents, dad was a governor. And even if his aim is conspicuously low, a run for the office of Texas land commissioner, expectations could not be higher — the governorship sometime in the next decade, followed, in the manner of dynastic destiny, with another White House reign.
First, though, there is next year’s election and the attendant need for Bush to banish even the slightest hint of complacency, much less entitlement.
To that end, the 37-year-old Republican has already raised more money — for a contest considered by many a foregone conclusion — than the incumbent spent in both of his competitive races, with millions more to come. He shunned suggestions he seek something grander — attorney general, say, or lieutenant governor. The Texas General Land Office, a bureaucratic backwater, is where his heart truly lies, Bush earnestly told the 100 or so gathered at the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum, even as he urged them to eye the horizon.
Texas’ political landscape is changing as its Latino population explodes, heartening Democrats who see the growth of that loyal constituency bringing the party back to statewide competitiveness after two decades of futility. Who better to stem that threat, Bush suggested, than a youthful conservative with sterling pedigree, fluency in Spanish and the cultural sensitivity of his Mexican-born mother, Columba. (His father, Jeb, a former Florida governor, met his wife as an exchange student.)
“I look forward to fighting that good fight,” the younger Bush said before signing black-and-white posters — “Welcome to Bush Country!” — and posing for snapshots on his way out the door.
Not surprisingly, the life of the fourth-generation Bush seems tailor-made for this moment, starting with his birth in Houston. Unlike his grandfather, George H.W., and uncle, George W., who were Connecticut-born transplants to Texas, he carries not the slightest whiff of Northeastern privilege.
A graduate of Houston’s Rice University and the law school at the University of Texas in Austin, the younger Bush has taught inner-city school kids and served in Navy intelligence in Afghanistan, where, for security reasons, he worked under an assumed name. He lives with his wife, Amanda, in Fort Worth, where he founded an energy consulting firm. Their first child, a boy, is due later this year.
Despite his political immersion and considerable charm, however, Bush is not a naturally gifted campaigner. His debut speech before a gathering of business and political leaders — and a bank of TV cameras — was generally panned for its platitudes and wooden, somewhat nervous delivery.
At times he sounds like someone talking the way he thinks a candidate is supposed to sound.
“We intend to opine on some of the big issues that the state will face in the [legislative] session,” he told the Texas Tribune in January, in one of the few substantive interviews he has granted.
No matter. For now, the brand name is apparently enough for this latest iteration.
“I know the backbone of the family,” said Ken Brown, 69, a Crawford policeman, who showed up for lunch with a photo of himself, the two former presidents and the candidate’s father taken at George W. Bush’s nearby ranch.
Even as he hones his campaign skills, George P. Bush has made some shrewd political moves. The responsibilities of Texas land commissioner include veterans programs and overseeing the oil and mineral rights that help pay for education — issues that neatly align with his background.
Perhaps his smartest decision was endorsing the state’s freshman U.S. senator, Ted Cruz, when Cruz was bucking the GOP establishment as a longshot candidate last summer. Cruz has since grown wildly popular with Republicans thanks to his guerrilla approach to Washington, giving Bush credibility with grass-roots conservatives who have become a much greater force in the party than they were 20 years ago, when his uncle became governor.
Bush has also built bridges to the Latino community through years of activism and campaign outreach. No Republican can move as easily from country club to Texas’ less-privileged precincts, which is another reason this Bush appeals to party leaders: The Texas GOP is aging and overwhelmingly white at a time the state is growing younger and more diverse, its face more and more like Bush’s.
Inevitably, speculation — about the candidate’s future, about the direction of the state and national Republican parties — is a constant companion. Traditionally, down-ballot offices in Texas have been a springboard, and it seems quite unlikely Bush will grow old in the post of land commissioner.
“I think this is probably the resume builder, this job here,” said Brown, the Crawford policeman. “There’s a lot of things that would qualify him and stimulate some interest in him going further.”
There is that first step, however.
“I’m focused on one thing and that’s running for General Land Office,” Bush told Waco’s TV station before dashing off for an evening reception in Austin. “It’s flattering to be in that discussion, honestly, but I think my voice is stronger on the issues that [the land office] is dealing with.”
No foreclosing of possibilities; nothing to backtrack from later. A lifetime in politics has taught Bush that and a few other things along the way.