Just seven months after his November 2018 loss to veteran U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, Detroit businessman John James is back in the game after being wooed by Republican strategists in Washington to take a shot at Michigan’s other Democratic senator, first-termer Gary Peters.
James said yes, and the many dynamics at play for the 2020 campaign make political observers wonder whether a revised version of John James will emerge in his contest against Peters, especially with the controversial President Trump at the top of the GOP ticket.
Republican operatives see James’ candidacy as a personal victory, a solid recruit for the party. It’s abundantly unclear who would have been a second choice of reasonable stature. The question now is whether James, as a fresh contender, has a realistic chance of scoring a knockout against Peters.
Just days after James’ announcement that he is running, Republican National Committee Chair Ronna Romney McDaniel conceded it will be harder to win the Peters’ Senate seat than what James, an Iraq War veteran, encountered in his loss to Stabenow by 6½ percentage points.
“Michigan is going to be competitive; it’s going to be harder,” McDaniel said in a speech to the Detroit Economic Club. “You did same-day registration and you have a Democrat governor. It’s going to be a more difficult state, but we’re up for the challenge and I think we’re going to win Michigan.”
McDaniel said Macomb County serves as a key battleground in 2020. At a Tuesday fundraising dinner organized by the Macomb County Republican Party in Shelby Township, Trump 2020 campaign manager Brad Parscale and Michigan GOP Chair Laura Cox were the featured speakers to fire up the troops.
GOP strategists know that 2020 will present a much different political battlefield than 2016, when Trump squeaked out a Michigan win by catching a highly unpopular Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, by surprise. Beyond presidential politics, the “Trump effect” gains center stage next year for congressional races across the country.
With the president consistently lagging in Michigan polls, it seems that James might be holding back, trying to decide if a virtual repeat of his pro-Trump 2018 Senate campaign is the way to go.
Is James no longer ‘2,000 percent’ behind Trump?
Despite his obvious political ambitions, James made the highly unusual decision to take down nearly all of his online campaign material just days after the November 2018 election. He quickly eliminated hundreds of Facebook and YouTube campaign videos, including those where he said that he was “2,000 percent” behind Trump. A similar purge occurred on Twitter.
That mass deletion also wiped out videos demonstrating the campaign support he embraced from two controversial Detroit rockers, Ted Nugent and Kid Rock.
When he announced on June 6 that he would make another Senate run, James produced a post on Twitter that featured confounding ambiguity.
“We are heading in the wrong direction as a country,” he tweeted, “and our leaders in Washington are failing to lead us toward a better and brighter future.”
If that message was intended as a dig against House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Democrats, James could have been much more specific. Meanwhile, Trump controls the White House, issuing executive orders and declaring emergencies, and the GOP has a stranglehold on the Senate, with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell blocking dozens of bills passed in the House.
In recent weeks, GOP House and Senate campaign tacticians have been divided on whether it would be better, on the second time around, for James to run for Senate or a House seat in Oakland County, where he resides in Farmington Hills.
Politico has reported that the inner-party concern is that James might generate just enough additional enthusiasm in a follow-up race against Peters to boost Democratic activism and voter turnout and sink the president’s chances of narrowly winning Michigan again as he did in 2016. Without Michigan, Trump’s chances for re-election diminish significantly.
Recent statewide polling by Glengariff Group, on behalf of WDIV-TV (Channel 4 in southeast Michigan) and The Detroit News, found Trump could face an uphill battle in Michigan next year.
Trump trails five Democratic presidential contenders
The poll concluded 51 percent of voters said they would definitely vote for someone other than the president, while just 36 percent indicated they are committed to voting for the president’s re-election. Trump trailed five of the top Democratic presidential hopefuls in Michigan in the May 28-30 survey, with former Vice President Joe Biden and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont each holding 12 percentage-point advantages over the incumbent.
Still, several competing factors could affect the Senate race’s outcome over the next many months:
- James’ candidacy clears the GOP field, allowing him to avoid the expense and workload of a primary challenge like he experienced last year. An articulate and engaging candidate, James said he will not embark on a full-time campaign until early 2020.
- A former House member, Peters has embraced an extraordinarily low-key tenure in the Senate since winning election to the upper chamber in 2014. He was named the fourth-most effective Democratic senator this year by the nonpartisan Center for Effective Lawmaking. At the same time, Cox, the state GOP chair, has hammered Peters for polling that shows 43 percent of Michigan voters don’t know who he is. However, Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer won comfortably in 2018 though her name identification during a long campaign was much worse than the numbers that currently plague Peters.
- Unlike in his campaign against Stabenow, a lifelong politician, James’ background as an Army combat fighter pilot who now runs his father’s auto-related business in Detroit will have less impact this time around. That’s because Peters is a former financial consultant and a member of the Naval Reserve. Cox has repeatedly claimed that James has “dedicated his life to the service of our nation.” Yet, after graduating from West Point, James served eight years on active duty before turning to the private sector. Peters has served 10 years in the Reserve and he currently sits on the Senate Armed Services and Homeland Security Committees.
In a series of columns written for The Detroit News, pundits have weighed in on James’ chances in 2020.
Dennis Lennox, a Republican political consultant and a longtime Peters critic, said that the incumbent senator is vulnerable in the election as his party moves to the left. The challenger has to hope that Trump can improve his polling numbers.
“James and Trump will sink or swim together, especially after what will surely be contentious and divisive Democratic presidential primaries and caucuses,” he concluded.
Nolan Finley, the News’ editorial page editor, suggested that GOP strategists have led James by the nose, setting him up for a second defeat that could ruin his status as a rising star in the party.
“The risk for James is that losing two Senate races in two years will label him a loser and, at a too-young age, destroy what should be a bright political future,” he warned.
And Bankole Thompson, the voice of Detroit’s black voters on his radio program (910-AM in the Motor City), wrote that Republicans falsely view James as a black conservative who can win the support of the city’s African-Americans.
“… The irony is that James’ own albatross is Detroit, his family hometown, where he lost massively to Stabenow last year after netting only about 9,000 votes,” he pointed out. “By contrast, more than 170,000 Detroiters gave their vote to Stabenow.”