A group called 43 Alumni for Biden represents a minority in today’s GOP. But it could still hold significance in a state like Texas.
by Tom Benning
Genevieve Woodard Hartley is a lifelong Republican who backs top Texas conservatives like Sen. John Cornyn. She worked on President George W. Bush’s campaign and in his administration. Her husband, among other relatives, supports President Donald Trump.
But the Houston-area resident will not vote for Trump. And not just that. The 42-year-old is also helping rally support for the president’s Democratic opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden, by reaching out to disaffected Republicans and former Bush administration colleagues.
Hartley is among those organizing a group with a name that speaks for itself: 43 Alumni for Biden – a reference to Bush’s status as America’s 43rd president.
“I don’t know if this is a one-time thing,” she said. “But I know if I vote for Joe Biden, especially in Texas, it could get Trump removed from office, which is the ultimate goal.”
The Texas twang is unmistakable in 43 Alumni for Biden, which launched earlier this month with the buzz that it had marshaled hundreds of former Bush administration officials “disappointed by the damage done to our nation by Donald Trump’s presidency.”
That focus is no surprise, given Bush’s Lone Star State bona fides. The former president, who isn’t involved in the effort, is a Texan who married a Texan, Laura Bush; once co-owned the Texas Rangers; served as Texas governor; owns a ranch in Crawford; and now lives in Dallas.
But the group, which represents an outlier in today’s GOP, could also hold particular significance in Texas.
Trump remains wildly popular among the state’s Republican voters at the same moment Texas has emerged as a legitimate political battleground for the first time in decades. Involvement in 43 Alumni for Biden, then, puts members directly on that fault line.
One further twist is that Bush has himself avoided weighing in on the White House race, part of his post-presidential policy of generally not commenting on news of the day. His spokesman, Freddy Ford, has emphasized this year that Bush is “retired from presidential politics.”
Members of the pro-Biden group are careful to say they aren’t speaking for Bush or trying to pressure him to weigh in. But they also point out that Bush has long encouraged his charges, along with other Americans, to stay engaged in the civic discourse.
“In the years that he’s been out of office, he has called on those of us who served in his administration to stay involved, to keep true to our values,” said Kristopher Purcell, a Plano native who worked for Bush’s campaigns and in his White House.
The 43 Alumni for Biden group went public in early July, unveiling a new political action committee aimed at mobilizing for the purposes of voter outreach and fundraising a “community of historically Republican voters who are dismayed” by Trump.
It’s one of a few high-profile and sometimes overlapping efforts that formed in recent months to build GOP support for Biden ahead of November. Others include the Lincoln Project, a well-funded operation that’s already drawn Trump’s ire, and a group called Republican Voters Against Trump.
That resistance represents, without question, a minority in the GOP. Many notable Texans who worked for Bush are now serving under Trump. Take Plano’s Chad Wolf, now acting Homeland Security Secretary. Others, such as Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, support the president full tilt.
Trump Victory spokeswoman Samantha Cotten also touted the president’s popularity in Texas.
“As President Trump leads the ‘Great American Comeback,’ the enthusiasm from Texans is unmatched, and voters will make this clear at the ballot box in just over 100 days,”she said, citing Trump’s approval rating among Republicans.
The 43 Alumni for Biden says it has its own heavy hitters, including some former Cabinet members.
The group hasn’t yet announced those bigwigs, and it doesn’t have to disclose its donors until October. Some top Bush aides have already made plain their preference, with former Secretary of State Colin Powell announcing last month that he would vote for Biden.
But most group members are rank-and-file administration officials that the general public wouldn’t recognize.
Organizers say many are Republicans. Some are independents or Democrats. Some voted for Trump in 2016. Others did not. Some can point to a specific moment that spurred their activism – for Purcell, it was Trump’s photo-op in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church on Lafayette Square across from the White House. Others describe a slow build.
“I worked for W. I support Joe,” the group’s slogan goes.
That focus on supporting Biden, as opposed to just rejecting Trump, was a deliberate choice.
Hartley, who lives in Clear Lake, explained that she didn’t vote for either Trump or Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016. She instead wrote in a protest vote. But she said she and others have come to realize that simply not casting a vote for Trump was not enough.
“I can’t complain anymore,” said Hartley, who is a stay-at-home mom. “I need to get involved.”
Those kinds of decisions come with real stakes. Lower profile Bush alumni have more to lose than someone like Powell by coming out in support of a Democratic presidential nominee. Especially in a traditional GOP stronghold like Texas. Especially in a year like 2020.
And especially if they are still involved in politics, government or other public-facing jobs.
“It is just too polarized of a time,” said one Bush alum who now works in government affairs in Dallas and supports Biden, explaining his reluctance to go on the record out of concern that he might “jeopardize working relationships by taking a public stand.”
Those who are coming forward, though, say they are doing so in part to provide safe harbor for others.
Craig Daniel, a 40-year-old former Bush administration official who lives in Dallas, said there are “a lot of people I admire, respect and love that voted for” Trump and “support him still.” But Daniel said he’s trying to send the message that “it’s OK to be a Republican and say, ‘This is not OK.’”
Daniel, who now works for a health nonprofit, recalled a recent text message he received from one of his former administration colleagues. The person had heard about Daniel’s involvement in the pro-Biden group and said: “I’m not there yet, but I would really like to talk to you about it.”
Tom Benning covers the intersection of business and government in Washington for the Dallas Morning News . He came to D.C. in 2016 from The News’ Austin bureau. He has also previously worked in Dallas, covering everything from City Hall to transportation to former President George W. Bush.