Long before the White House, George Bush waged two Senate bids. Here’s a look at his campaigns

Former President George H.W. Bush died at the age of 94 on Friday, but as is our wont at Daily Kos Elections, we’ll devote ourselves to taking stock of his early political career, which featured two unsuccessful Senate bids that bookended a brief tenure in the House in the 1960s.

Bush was the son of wealthy Connecticut Sen. Prescott Bush, a progressive Republican who notably spoke out against fellow Sen. Joe McCarthy’s anti-communist witch hunt. After serving in World War II as a combat pilot, the younger Bush relocated to West Texas and got a job with a family friend in the oil industry. In 1951, Bush co-founded an oil company of his own, and he became wealthy in his own right two years later when it merged with another firm.

In 1963, the same year that his father left the Senate, Bush turned his eye to politics for the first time. Bush, who was now living in Houston, successfully ran to lead the Harris County GOP, saying that local Republicans encouraged him to get in to stop members of the far-right John Birch Society from taking over.

Bush’s election as county chair came at a time when Democrats were still in firm control of Texas, but there were already signs that Republicans were gaining strength. In 1961, John Tower won a special election for Vice President Lyndon Johnson’s former Senate seat, becoming the first Republican to win a direct election to the Senate in any of the 11 former Confederate states since the passage of the 17th Amendment half a century earlier. The next year, Democrat John Connally only modestly defeated oil executive Jack Cox 54-46 in the race for governor (Connally would switch to the GOP in 1973), while Republicans flipped a House seat in Midland (though they still only held only two of the state’s 23 congressional districts at the time).

In late July of 1963, Bush published an op-ed in the Houston Chronicle laying out the party’s pitch heading into the next election year, which also gives us a window into the local political state of affairs at this early point in his career. Bush lamented that his party had “the problem of the downtown businessman who thinks Republican, votes Republican, occasionally gives quietly Republican, but for ‘political’ reasons won’t identify as a Republican.” To overcome this problem, Bush argued, required electing Republicans to local and statewide office to make rank-and-file voters feel comfortable describing themselves as Republicans.

Bush also defended his county party from what he called attempts by “liberals” to portray them as racists, writing that the GOP’s “failure to attract the Negro voter has not been because of a racist philosophy; rather it has been a product of our not having had the organization to tackle all parts of the county.”

While Bush turned out to be wrong in his twin predictions that, with Republicans in power, Houston “would become and would remain a great Republican stronghold,” and that black voters would be “highly receptive” to the GOP’s message, he was right in one regard. Bush correctly foresaw that, while some believed there was no real difference between the two parties, that would change. Bush predicted that conservatives would flock to the GOP as the distinctions between the two parties became more stark, writing, “As conservative Democrats in the South seek vainly for the now-extinct party of their ancestors, the ideological lines become much more clear.”

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