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What if Bush Leapfrogged Other Texas Republicans?

Gage Skidmore, Texas Tribune

What if George P. Bush wanted to run for governor in 2014?

It’s not what most people are talking about, now that he’s knocked on the political door. When he filed papers this month designating a campaign treasurer — the first legal step on the path to a candidacy — most of the conversation focused on the lesser statewide offices, things like land commissioner and comptroller.

And his father, former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida, sent out a fundraising letter last week saying his son was looking at the General Land Office.

But if you are, like many political journalists, a fight promoter at heart, you can make out faint rumblings about something bigger.

Bush’s uncle entered at the top of the ballot. George W. Bush has only held two political offices — governor of Texas and president of the United States. To be fair, he had run one campaign before, losing a congressional race to then-Democrat Kent Hance of Dimmitt in 1978. But that Bush was out of electoral politics — at least as a candidate — until he ran in 1994 and upended Gov. Ann Richards. Texas Democrats haven’t won a statewide election since that year, and ambitious folks who want to serve mostly focus on the Republican primaries.

And most people touch a rung or two before they reach the top of the ladder. Gov. Rick Perrywas in the state House and then served as agriculture commissioner and lieutenant governor. Richards had been a Travis County commissioner and a state treasurer. The most commonly mentioned candidates for the governor’s post, other than Perry, are Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, who previously served as land commissioner, and Attorney General Greg Abbott, who was a trial judge and then a Texas Supreme Court justice before winning his current post.

The people looking, in turn, at Dewhurst’s and Abbott’s jobs are mostly officeholders, too, as are the people behind them.

There’s a food chain. An organization chart. And Republicans often seem hard-wired to play by the rules, to do things in order.

It’s not Bush’s turn. Then again, it wasn’t Ted Cruz’s turn, and he’s on his way to the U.S. Senate after leapfrogging Dewhurst and winning a top slot in his first appearance on an election ballot.

He’s the precedent in another way, too, as a relatively rare Hispanic Republican who made it past Republican primary voters who’ve had a historically hard time translating “welcome” to “bienvenidos.”

Statewide Republicans run for election before a small electorate. It only required the support of about 4 percent of the state’s voting-age population to win the Republican primary in Texas this year — fewer than 740,000 voters.

That has played to the advantage of conservative Republicans; their voters show up in primary and general elections, while many Republicans don’t show up at all in the primaries.

One path to victory is the one Cruz followed by running to the right of Dewhurst, himself a conservative. Another path — largely untested — requires attracting more people into the primary from that supposedly more moderate November cohort.

Road No. 2 requires star power and some vigorous competition. It happened in the 2008 Democratic primary in Texas. Presidential races are almost always over by the time they reach the state, but Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama were still locked in a battle for their party’s nomination, and Texas became a battleground. Turnout in the Democratic primary that year increased 243 percent over the 2004 turnout; the Republican primary that year, apparently driven by the noise on the other side of the room, increased by 98 percent.

The Bush name is worth something in Texas, initially. Bush’s performance at the polls would depend on his performance as a candidate, and he is untested. In a party looking for Hispanics and that name, he’s good on paper — so was Perry in the last presidential race.

And the competition is there. Perry has hinted at another run. And some think Abbott, who has been waiting in the wings, might be willing to challenge Perry if it comes to that. Abbott has money in the bank, and voters might have some fatigue with the incumbent.

Here’s something else that has been on the statewide Texas ballot — a lot — since 1980: someone named Bush.

Ross Ramsey is managing editor of The Texas Tribune and continues as editor of Texas Weekly, the premier newsletter on government and politics in the Lone Star State, a role he's had since September 1998. Texas Weekly was a print-only journal when he took the reins in 1998; he switched it to a subscription-based, internet-only journal by the end of 2004 without a significant loss in subscribers. As Texas Weekly's primary writer for 11 years, he turned out roughly 2 million words in more than 500 editions, added an online library of resources and documents and items of interest to insiders, and a daily news clipping service that links to stories from papers across Texas. Before joining Texas Weekly in September 1998, Ramsey was associate deputy comptroller for policy with the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts, also working as the agency's director of communications. Prior to that 28-month stint in government, Ramsey spent 17 years in journalism, reporting for the Houston Chronicle from its Austin bureau and for the Dallas Times Herald, first on the business desk in Dallas and later as the paper's Austin bureau chief. Prior to that, as a Dallas-based freelance business writer, he wrote for regional and national magazines and newspapers. Ramsey got his start in journalism in broadcasting, working for almost seven years covering news for radio stations in Denton and Dallas.
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