Republican rookie’s 2nd campaign in Michigan ‘a lot different’
John James says his Senate race is a contest for the soul of the GOP
Republicans know they could not draft a better candidate for a worse time. Luckily for them, John James was such a candidate before a pandemic ravaged its way around the globe, a recession cratered the world economy and racial strife erupted across America.
He turned heads when he ran and narrowly lost a race against Sen. Debbie Stabenow last cycle as an untested political rookie, then quietly and quickly started gathering strength for his current challenge against the other Democratic incumbent in Michigan, Sen. Gary Peters.
“It feels a lot different this time,” James told RealClearPolitics in a stark understatement less than 100 days from Nov. 3. And one of the many differences comes Tuesday. In the 2018 primary, he had to hurdle a self-funding fellow Republican who put $5 million into his bid. James will now breeze unchallenged to the party’s nomination, enjoying a takeoff that preserves precious resources for the general election race in a state critical to Republican self-preservation.
The Grand Old Party needs Michigan. It was the key to a Trump victory four years ago, and it could hold the fate of his second term. It also represents one of the rare opportunities for Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to go on the offensive as Senate Republicans otherwise play defense across the board.
Enter James, who tells RCP during a brief phone interview that yes, his state is both those things. His race also represents, he believes, a contest for the soul of the GOP, if not the nation.
“The Republican Party was founded in order to do two things: to free men from bondage and to hold this nation together,” he said before applying past to present. “And now Republicans, regardless of race, color or creed, have the opportunity to free men from bondage again.”
Modern bondage, as James defines it, means economic and social immobility combined with the financial anxiety very much in the air as the unemployment rate hovers above 11%. It is the kind of high-minded idealism that would fall flat — along with one’s polling numbers — if it wasn’t for the story that James has to tell.
“I am a family man. I am a business leader. I am a combat veteran, a West Point graduate who happens to be African American,” he explained. And he’s soon to be the Senate nominee for “a party that talks big about minority outreach,” he added. “I believe we have an opportunity to make sure that we have representation that looks more and thinks more like our population.”
He doesn’t talk about these things as if ticking off bullet points on a resume. He speaks about them, particularly when it comes to race, in terms of lived experience. A typical stump speech, delivered either in person while socially-distanced or over the Internet, follows the same arc.
James served eight years in the U.S. Army, flew Apache attack helicopters in Iraq during multiple tours, and eventually left the service, earning two master’s degrees before taking over his family’s distribution business in Detroit. His father is a Vietnam War veteran and entrepreneur. His grandfather was a mason, and his great-grandfather, a sharecropper. His great-great grandfather, a slave. He sums up this ancestry with a patriotic flourish: “This is the only country where you can go from slave to senator in four generations and poverty to prosperity in one.”
But James is not yet a senator. He isn’t even the Republican nominee yet, and while that will come easily enough Tuesday night when the precincts report in, he has a long way to go before packing his bags for Washington. It’s an uphill battle. Again. But James enjoys real glimmers of hope that other challengers can only covet.
The RCP polling average shows James trailing Peters by 9.4 percentage points. But the most recent poll included in that average, from CNBC/Change Research, has the challenger well within striking distance of the incumbent at 48% to 44%. And James believes he can write a triumphant chapter in the family anthology.
His campaign points to two facts to project public confidence. First, polling by Morning Consult, which shows Peters remains one of the least-known senators to his constituents despite nearly six years in office. Second, money — specifically, a lot of money. “By the grace of God and the generosity of people all over the state and the country,” James explained, “we outraised an incumbent Democrat four quarters in a row.”
Conservatives have been helicoptering money into Michigan in such large amounts that the former Apache pilot has effectively closed the fundraising gap. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Peters has raised $21.5 million. James, $20.5 million.
Michigan is just one front in the fight to control the Senate. If Democrats are to make New York Sen. Chuck Schumer majority leader, then they must win three seats should Joe Biden win the White House or four if Democrats fail to retake the presidency.
James sees the stakes represented by those numbers. He also heightens the contrasts. He says Michigan isn’t red or blue, “it is purple.” He notes that his state is very much the crossroads of modern populism, home to an electorate that gave primary victories in 2016 to both Trump and Sen. Bernie Sanders.
And since the Reagan administration, Republicans and Democrats have traded the deed to the governor’s mansion back and forth without one party ever getting the chance to put back-to-back executives in the office. The current congressional delegation is similarly split, James argues, with seven Democrats and “seven Republicans.” Technically, that’s not accurate after Rep. Justin Amash disowned Republicans in July 2019 and declared himself a libertarian. (However, he votes consistently with his old party.)
If Michigan is a red and blue mix, James tells voters, shouldn’t their junior and senior senator present a purple presence in the U.S. Senate? His argument: Send him to work alongside his old rival. “Michigan has the opportunity to have representation with Stabenow and James, Democrat-Republican, female-male,” he told RCP. It would make certain that the state “has a voice and a seat at the table, regardless of who is in the majority or who is in the White House.”
But James’ political analysis is being made in a vacuum. The argument about national reconciliation and the appeal to bipartisanship could all go down in flames if Trump gets thumped and craters the down-ballot hopes of Michigan Republicans. Hence the caution.
Biden leads Trump by 7.4 points in the RCP average. By comparison, Hillary Clinton led Trump by 3.2 points, according to that same metric four years ago. It is an open question, then, whether or not the president helps or hurts. It is also not one that James seems keen on discussing.
“We’re competing in a world that has growing spheres of communist influence, like China, that think in terms of dynasties and centuries, and we can’t get out of our own way in terms of quarters and election cycles,” James told Morning Consult last month. “This myopic fixation on the president is not serving Michigan and it’s not serving America.”
He reiterated during his interview with RCP that his campaign is “focusing on our own race,” and that the stakes are higher than just “flipping a seat.” His candidacy, he said, was about the possibility “to do something that Republicans have been talking about for such a long time”: Again, electing someone who understands what a larger portion of the country believes rather than the traditional Republican base.
Before RCP could ask about Trump’s about rhetoric on race, campaign staff hustled James off the phone — his time is at a premium, and the candidate has a long list of events to attend. He has not hidden from the question, though. When asked about renaming military bases dedicated to Confederate generals, for instance, he told the New York Times that if the armed services wanted to rededicate a fortification, “it’s fine by me.”
James has gone harder after Joe Biden on the racial issue, however, most recently when the former presumptive presidential nominee told African American voters that if they didn’t vote for him, “you ain’t black.” Biden since retracted that statement but not before the black Republican slammed the Democrat for the displaying “the epitome of arrogance and condescension.”
On this point, James is evenhanded. He condemns the left “for neglecting the African American vote.” He chastises the right historically “for having not tried.” His conclusion is that there is “a vacuum in the narrative.” James said that the problem ultimately “goes both ways.”
He is different than a majority of Republicans. He understands that difference but finds it secondary.
“If you have the heart to fix this nation rather than burn it down, if you have the ability to love your neighbor as yourself, and if you have the courage to be insulted and spat upon on social media but to do the right thing, then I really believe that we have the opportunity to speak to people’s hearts and bring this nation together,” James explained.
“Yes, as a black man I have different experiences,” he adds. “But ultimately what makes our nation great is not what separates us but what ties us together.”