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George P. Bush's 'risky' move: Challenging Texas' pro-Trump attorney general

The Republican primary for Texas AG will be a race for Trump's blessing as Bush seeks to dislodge incumbent Ken Paxton, who is facing trial for securities fraud.
Image: George P. Bush arrives for a kick-off rally with his wife Amanda to announced he will run for Texas Attorney General on June 2, 2021, in Austin, Texas
George P. Bush arrives for a kickoff rally with his wife, Amanda, to announce he will run for Texas attorney general June 2, 2021, in Austin, Texas.Eric Gay / AP

George P. Bush isn't like other members of his family. And he has the koozie to prove it.

Shortly after the land commissioner, a Republican, launched a primary challenge to Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton last week, his campaign distributed red can coolers emblazoned with a 2019 quote from former President Donald Trump: "This is the only Bush that likes me. This is the Bush that got it right. I like him."

The 45-year-old son of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, and the nephew and grandson of two past presidents, is betting big on those words as he seeks an intraparty fight to dislodge Paxton, one of the most pro-Trump state officials in the country. While other Bushes have clashed with or distanced themselves from the former president, this Bush has set out to claim the Trump mantle for himself at a time when his own family's political clout has waned. He's also gambling on the premise that Paxton's mounting legal woes may have political consequences in 2022.

Republican operatives in the state said it's a risky move.

"Personally, I wouldn't advise to do this because the perception is he's going to be challenging Ken from the left," Matt Mackowiak, a Texas-based Republican strategist, told NBC News of Bush challenging Paxton. "George would disagree with that characterization. He would say, 'Look, I endorsed Trump as land commissioner, I've been assertive, I've worked in energy, I am a military veteran.'"

"But I think the perception among primary voters is going to be that Ken has been a strong conservative and that George is not as conservative," he added.

Brendan Steinhauser, a Texas Republican strategist, described Bush's bid as "kind of risky."

"In politics, you have to look for opportunities," he said. "But I'm a little surprised he didn't hang in there as land commissioner and then maybe run for governor, or attorney general down the line. But I guess he sees a vulnerability."

President Donald Trump with Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton on Nov. 20, 2019, in Austin.Evan Vucci / AP

"The energy for him, in his view, is to bring integrity back to the AG's office," Steinhauser added. "I think that's a winning message, potentially, for him and for his lane, and for folks that want to support somebody else. But again, he's got an uphill climb. And if he doesn't win, you can kind of wonder, 'OK, well, what would be the next move?"

With Bush's entrance into the race, the GOP primary for Texas attorney general will be among the most anticipated, and analyzed, state-level races of the cycle. And the field is likely to get more crowded. Former Texas Supreme Court Justice Eva Guzman, a Republican, filed paperwork to run for the office Monday, The Texas Tribune reported.

Paxton is facing legal issues on multiple fronts. He has been under indictment on securities fraud charges for nearly six years. Additionally, he is facing an FBI probe into allegations from former top aides that he abused his office. In both instances, Paxton has denied any wrongdoing. He has refused bipartisan calls to resign, including from former top aide and current U.S. Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, and been re-elected once already while under the cloud of indictment.

The securities fraud case has been delayed for years. Last week, prosecutors challenged a decision made by a panel of judges that the case should be moved back to his home county — a development that could further delay a trial.

In announcing his bid last week, Bush said, "Enough is enough, Ken."

"You've brought way too much scandal and too little integrity to this office," he continued, suggesting that if Paxton is the nominee again, Democrats will win the office back next fall.

"Paxton is someone who has had his troubles," Matt Gorman, a Washington, D.C., based Republican strategist and former staffer on Jeb Bush's failed 2016 presidential bid. "And I think there's an opportunity there for someone. George P. has some pretty good roots in the state. And he's going to raise a lot of money."

In Texas, "statewide offices don't just fall in your lap," he added. "You have to take [your chance.] So I understand his thought process with that."

Last week, the State Bar of Texas began investigating whether Paxton's efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election amount to professional misconduct, The Associated Press reported. Paxton filed a long-shot lawsuit — backed by Republican attorneys general and lawmakers across the country and based upon baseless and discredited claims of voter fraud and irregularities — petitioning the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn President Joe Biden's victory in four swing states. That effort, scorned by legal experts and officials in those states but repeatedly promoted by Trump and allies, failed.

Bush, who has acknowledged Biden's victory, has said he understood what Paxton was trying to do but said the effort was doomed from the start. But it did succeed in bringing the embattled Paxton even closer to Trump, which could complicate the other piece of Bush's two-pronged approach to unseating the incumbent.

So far, Bush has gone to great lengths to make clear he is the member of the Bush family who backed Trump throughout his presidency and remains supportive of him.

Ahead of his official campaign announcement June 3, Bush tweeted a picture of himself speaking on the phone with Trump, writing: "I appreciate the words of encouragement and support." In one of his first ads, Bush said that under Trump, "our country was strong and vibrant again."

Bush's tenure as land commissioner, the office he first won in 2014, has not been entirely smooth sailing. He drew three primary challenges in 2018 after his plans for restoring the Alamo became the subject of heated political debate — though he went on to win that race with 58 percent of the vote and Trump's backing. More recently, he faced criticism after his office iced out Houston and Harris County from the latest round of federal Hurricane Harvey relief funding — a decision that was reversed.

For someone whose father and family were mocked by Trump on the national stage, the path forged by the younger Bush to seek higher office may seem jarring. But maintaining a relationship with Trump is "a necessity" for Bush given Trump's popularity with Republican voters, Steinhauser said.

"I think he sees it as a moment in time and is smart enough to see what I see, even though personally, I don't like it," Steinhauser, who is not supportive of Trump, said. "He still has a lot of influence, and it's very hard to be successful by just going out there and opposing him. Or even in some ways, trying to avoid talking about him," Steinhauser said, referring to the former president's clout.

But in a competition for Trump's affection, topping Paxton will prove difficult. In addition to filing the lawsuit last fall seeking to overturn the election, he spoke at the "Stop the Steal" rally in Washington, D.C., ahead of the Jan. 6 Capitol riot. Paxton also met with Trump at Mar-a-Lago earlier this year.

Last week, after Bush's announcement, Paxton made an appearance on Steve Bannon's "War Room" podcast to highlight his MAGA bonafides. In that interview, Paxton said Trump would have lost Texas had his office not succeeded in its effort to block Harris County, home to Houston, from sending out unsolicited mail-in ballot applications.

Steinhauser said many GOP primary voters in his state are proud of Paxton's efforts in the election and for his loyalty to Trump.

"He's successfully been able to maintain that relationship with Trump, going down to Mar-a-Lago, going up to January 6 and speaking at the rally," he said. "Whereas people might think that would be a liability, it's not yet. He's got the inside track, unless he's convicted, and again, even then, I wouldn't rule him out."

Last month, Trump said in a statement that he likes both Bush and Paxton "very much."

"I’ll be making my endorsement and recommendation to the great people of Texas in the not-so-distant future," he said in the statement, first reported by CNN.

Mackowiak said he thinks it's likely those around Trump will encourage him to back Paxton. In Texas, the icy relationship between the Trump and Bush families — sans George P. — has "hurt the Bush family with Republican primary voters."

But the race could swing on the candidate Trump backs.

"George P. is going to try to use the fact that he's the only Bush that endorsed Trump as a signature credential," Mackowiak said. "Ken is going to use his four years defending Trump's administration as his signature credential."