At the end of May, Texas Republican Party Chairman Tom Mechler named Land Commissioner George P. Bush as the party’s 2016 “victory chairman,” charged with raising money and running the statewide campaign to “annihilate the Democrats up-and-down the ballot this November.”
Bush, the party’s top vote-getter in 2014, was an obvious choice, Mechler said: “Well known, of course. Well liked. Of course, the Bush name is very strong in Texas.”
No matter that Donald Trump, who humiliated Bush’s father, Jeb, as “low energy,” during the rough and tumble GOP presidential race, will presumably be topping the ticket, and that neither Jeb Bush, nor George P. Bush’s uncle, former President George W. Bush, nor his grandfather, former President George H.W. Bush, plan to back Trump.
“George P. Bush is a team player,” Mechler said. And that means working to elect every candidate on the Texas ballot in November with an “R” next to his or name, said Mechler, who was elected to his first full term as chairman at the Republican State Convention in Dallas last month with “Unite To Win” as the convention’s theme.
The choice of George P. Bush doesn’t sit well with everyone.
“It’s a very surprising decision, particularly in light of the father, the uncle and the grandfather making it abundantly clear they are not going to endorse Donald Trump for November,” said Tom Pauken, a former GOP state chairman who will be a Trump delegate at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland. “If you don’t have your own family on board, how do you encourage others?”
The answer, according to George P. Bush, is that you don’t.
“My job is pretty simple as it relates to our game plan as of right now,” he told the American-Statesman. “The focus is on one congressional race and eight state House races. In large part we are isolated from the national political landscape, and that’s honestly where I prefer to be.”
Bush said he doesn’t plan to endorse or even vote for Trump, though that could change if Trump changes.
“I, along with others, are not in a position to endorse at this time because of concerns about his rhetoric and his inability to create a campaign that brings people together,” Bush said.
Five weeks out from the Republican National Convention, Trump finds himself the presumptive nominee of a party whose leadership across the country remains uneasy him. Trump, the outsider, faces a general election campaign in which he will have to rely on uncertain allies, if they are allies at all.
It is a dilemma for the party and for Trump, and is perhaps nowhere more evident than Texas, the cornerstone of any Republican Electoral College majority.
Lukewarm Texas support for Trump
Texas’ U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, who finished a distant second to Trump in delegates, denounced Trump as unfit to lead the nation and, on leaving the race, predicted Trump’s nomination would be a disaster for the party. Cruz has shown no inclination to endorse Trump since.
The state’s senior U.S. senator, John Cornyn, has endorsed Trump, but Cornyn is the second-in-command of a Republican Senate leadership who fear that Trump’s candidacy could cost them their majority.
Gov. Greg Abbott, who backed Cruz, has also endorsed Trump. But a recent spate of stories about the state’s investigation of Trump University in 2010 under then-Attorney General Abbott, make it virtually impossible that he can effectively campaign for Trump.
Either Abbott would have to explain backing a man for president whom his office found to be personally involved in scamming Texans and whose “university” investigators working for Abbott chased out of the state, or, in an alternative reading of the same set of facts, explain why he let Trump and Trump U off without prosecution, and whether two campaign donations years later totaling $35,000 from Trump to Abbott’s gubernatorial campaign amounted to a delayed gratuity for going easy on Trump.
All six Republican members of Congress representing parts of Central Texas — Reps. Lamar Smith of San Antonio, Michael McCaul and Roger Williams of Austin, John Carter of Round Rock, Bill Flores of Bryan and Blake Farenthold of Corpus Christi — say they will vote for Trump.
But McCaul, who chairs the Homeland Security Committee, and Flores, who chairs the Republican Study Committee (which is the influential conservative caucus in the House), have stopped short of endorsing him.
McCaul has said he wants to meet with Trump, who he said “is going to need advice in national security, foreign policy,” before making a formal endorsement.
To get his blessing, Flores said last week, Trump needs to provide “more vision and less trash talk.”
“If you look at where America is today, 70 percent of the people think the country is headed in the wrong direction,” Flores said. “With that as a backdrop, I think it’s important for Mr. Trump to talk about his ideas for moving the country forward and about how he would repair the damage that was inflicted on the country by President Obama.”
“He needs to be speaking about the important issues of national security, economic opportunity and jobs and how do we deal with getting people out of poverty,” he said.
Like many Republicans, Flores was especially distressed by Trump’s recent attacks on Gonzalo Curiel, the federal judge presiding over the Trump University case in California, with Trump describing the Indiana-born jurist as a “Mexican,” who Trump said was biased against him because of his promise to build a wall between the United States and Curiel family’s ancestral land.
Trump’s line of attack on Curiel has been widely decried as what House Speaker Paul Ryan, who had just endorsed Trump, called the “textbook definition of a racist comment.”
Flores said it is especially unhelpful in Texas, a state where Republicans depend on doing far better with Hispanic voters than their party does with Hispanics nationally, a standing that Trump could jeopardize.
“That’s not going to do in Texas,” Flores said.
“I don’t agree with what he said, and it’s unseemly that he is using his forum as a presidential candidate for a lawsuit affecting his personal issues,” Farenthold said.
But Farenthold was willing to cut Trump some slack.
“He may have crossed the line there, but I don’t agree with everything I say sometimes,” Farenthold said. He said that Trump should meet with the House Republican Caucus before the convention.
“With President Trump, I’m ready to get off defense and go on offense.” Farenthold said. “Trump is going to slaughter some sacred cows, and I’m ready for the barbecue.”
U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett of Austin, the sole Democrat representing Central Texans, said he understands his Republican colleagues’ careful handling of Trump — even though he says Trump only expresses in blunter ways their views on race and immigration.
“You don’t have to be bitten twice by a rattlesnake to know it’s venomous,” Doggett said of Trump.
‘Isolated from the national noise’
Mechler predicts Trump will easily win Texas, and triumph nationally.
“The bottom line is I think Donald Trump is a very populist candidate, and his popularity is driven by a great frustration on the part of the American people with respect to what Obama has done to our country,” said Mechler, who is from Amarillo. “I am comfortable that Donald Trump is going to win the election because people are just going to come out in droves and vote because they just have had enough and know that Hillary Clinton will be Obama’s third term.”
George P. Bush’s new party assignment is no honorary position. He is charged with leading the fundraising effort, and his political director, Ash Wright, will direct the comprehensive GOP statewide operation — identifying, registering and turning out Republican voters — with staff assigned to him from the state party and a field operation he will assemble.
Bush said right now he doesn’t see a threat that Trump could lose Texas in the fall, and that “the Trump effort is going to concentrate on other parts of our country, the industrial Midwest and other battleground states,” and seek to put states like Pennsylvania, New York and Michigan in play.
“We are isolated from the national noise,” Bush said, “and so we’re focused like a laser” on helping U.S. Rep. Will Hurd hold on to the sprawling 23rd Congressional District, which stretches 800 miles from Hurd’s hometown of San Antonio to El Paso, in a rematch against his predecessor, Democrat Pete Gallego, and on a handful of “state House races that show some promise for the party to make some pickups or play defense.”
In other words, Bush’s focus is on helping down-ballot candidates weather Trump’s candidacy.
Hurd, whose district is two-thirds Hispanic, is withholding an endorsement of Trump “until the presumptive nominee shows he can respect women and minorities.”
Bush said the competitive state House districts are in San Antonio, greater Houston, the Rio Grande Valley and the Dallas/ Fort Worth Metroplex.
Rice University political scientist Mark Jones said the worst-case scenario for Texas Republicans, “if Trump craters,” is losing Hurd’s seat and eight to 10 state House seats. The most vulnerable Republican state House incumbents, Jones said, are Rick Galindo and John Lujan in San Antonio, Ken Sheets from Dallas, Rodney Anderson from Grand Prairie, Cindy Burkett from Sunnyvale, Gilberto Peña from Pasadena, Sarah Davis from West University Place and J.M. Lozano from Kingsville.
Jones said one long-shot target for Republicans to pick up a House seat would be the one held by Joe Moody of El Paso.
Bush pointed to Cornyn’s re-election race in 2014, in which he narrowly defeated Democrat David Alameel with Hispanic voters, as a model of the kind of campaign that can keep Texas red.
‘This is baffling to me’
Bush said he has no official role at the Republican National Convention.
“I may drop by for a day or two, just kind of hang out, and head back home,” he said.
He discounts talk that, amid the discontent with Trump in recent days, there might be some kind of move in Cleveland to deny him the nomination.
“There are always rumors, but I think it’s a done deal,” Bush said. “Look, Donald Trump should be credited with his victory. He won walking away.”
But, Bush said, if Trump is going to win over him and others, it is “incumbent upon him to be serious and to get his tonality” right.
Pauken, who served in the Reagan administration and chaired the Texas GOP in the 1990s, said, “It’s not automatic that Texas is going to go Republican” in the presidential campaign and that having Bush as victory chairman doesn’t help.
“This is baffling to me this would be happening, because you would think you would want somebody in charge who is enthusiastic about the nominee,” Pauken said. “There’s an element in our party that quite frankly hopes we lose in November — the `never Trump’ phenomenon in Texas — and prefer we lose even with the prospect of Hillary Clinton being the president.”
It would have been better, Pauken said, if Mechler had named someone like Lubbock County Republican Chairman Carl Tepper, an at-large Trump delegate, or Mechler’s predecessor as chairman, Steve Munisteri, to be the victory chairman.
“The only argument I’ve heard is that he’s good at raising money,” Pauken said of Bush. “A lot of that is Bush money. Is that Bush money going to go to a ticket headed by Donald Trump? I don’t know.”
Tepper said last week that, for all the talk of what a “tough week” Trump has had, “the party headquarters in Lubbock was absolutely overrun with people wanting Trump material. We’ve run out of everything — Trump bumper stickers, ball caps. Lots and lots of calls from people wanting stuff.”
Tepper said the queasy attitude of some Republican officials to Trump indicates how out of touch they are, and he has had enough of the conditional endorsements.
“That’s just covering your butt. I’m sick of that stuff,” he said. “I’d rather see some enthusiasm or don’t bother.”
Munisteri, who is temporarily working as a convention consultant to the Republican National Convention, said he didn’t think the Bush-Trump dynamic would hobble Bush’s role as victory chairman. Successful victory campaigns in the past haven’t focused or hinged on the top of the ticket. The 2012 campaign never mentioned standard-bearer Mitt Romney, he said.
“The key is, can he raise money?” Munisteri said, and he doesn’t think Trump would scare away Bush-friendly donors who would want to help the Texas party and would want to see George P. Bush, the next Bush in the line of family succession, succeed.
“It’s a smart move” for both Bush and the state party, said Jones, the political scientist, of Mechler’s choice of Bush.
“In the end the Bushes are pretty party oriented,” Jones said. “They would view it as safeguarding conservative Republicans in Texas from going too far to the Trump side, or from Texas turning blue.”
And, Jones said, for Texas Republicans, the best antidote to any damage Trump might inflict on the Republican brand with Hispanics, might be George P. Bush, who was both the party’s top vote-getter in 2014 and, is the son of a Mexican-born mother.
Jonathan Tilove is the American-Statesman’s chief political correspondent. He offers his take on state and national politics at the First Reading blog on mystatesman.com.