The 2018 Elections were fairly disastrous for Michigan Republicans. Every statewide constitutional office and two U.S. House seats flipped to Democratic control, the GOP’s grip on both chambers in Lansing loosened, and voters undid Republican state lawmakers’ efforts to eliminate straight-ticket voting and perpetuate hyper-partisan redistricting. Amid that unrelenting bad news was the surprising and better-than-expected showing of political novice John James in a losing effort to unseat Sen. Debbie Stabenow. James, an African-American combat veteran and Michigan-born small business owner who received more votes last year than GOP Gov. Rick Snyder did in his 2010 landslide, proved himself to be just the sort of fresh-faced, upbeat conservative the party hopes can lead it out of those doldrums.
All of that promise, however, is in danger of being squandered in his decision to make a second run for the U.S. Senate, this time against incumbent Sen. Gary Peters in the 2020 election. The gambit is high risk, high reward; should James fall to both senators in a two-year span, GOP experts say, his political meteor could crash as quickly as it ascended. Unseating an incumbent is always difficult, but James will also be shackled by his ties to the 2020 ballot-topper, President Donald Trump, who has been stubbornly unpopular in Michigan after eking out a surprise win in the state in 2016.
“It’s a wasted opportunity for him,” GOP consultant Dennis Darnoi warns. “Trump’s going to lose Michigan in 2020. Democratic turnout will be so high that Peters will win either by the skin of his teeth or by a lot. Had James kept his powder dry, he would have been in a good position to help redefine what a conservative is in Michigan in the post-Trump era.” Fellow Republican consultant Dan McMaster agrees: “Once you’re a two-time loser, it could be the end of his political career. I don’t think somebody’s going to invest in him again on the national level in terms of fundraising.”
James, 38, did not return several calls or any emails seeking an interview for this
article. In fact, as of late September, he had not spoken to any major Michigan-based media outlets, except The Detroit News, since announcing his 2020 candidacy on a Fox News morning show in early June.
In that appearance and another on the conservative Ben Shapiro’s radio show, he seemed to try to assert himself as an “independent thinker” not beholden to either parties’ orthodoxies. That, observers say, is James’ pre-emptive effort to distance himself from Trump should the president’s unpopularity persist. But, the Peters campaign clearly does not plan to allow James to do so; a Peters fundraising mailer sent out in mid-September featured four references to James’ 2017 declaration to The Detroit News that he supported Trump “2,000 percent.” The quote even appears in bold type on the front of the envelope.
For his part, James is expected to exploit the fact that Peters is one of the least-known U.S. senators. One-third of Michiganians didn’t know who he was in a January 2019 poll conducted by The Detroit News, which McMaster says is an opportunity for James to suggest Peters is an ineffectual backbencher. “Peters doesn’t have as strong a reputation as Debbie Stabenow did,” says Michigan State University political science professor Matt Grossmann. “People thought she had an independent reputation because she’s been chair of the [U.S. Senate] Agriculture Committee and that would help her in rural areas, but we didn’t see evidence for that. Peters doesn’t even have that.”
What Peters will have going for him though, is money, history, and experience. He raised $2.4 million in the second quarter of 2019, a record haul for a Michigan U.S. Senate candidate in an off-election year quarter, and he is running in a state that has managed to elect only two Republicans to the Senate since the 1960s. He also is known as an indefatigable campaigner who unseated an eight-term GOP congressman in 2008 to win a House seat and then won his first Senate race in 2014. That was a year when Democrats lost nine seats nationally. James may have managed to surprise Stabenow and Democrats with his strong grassroots support and campaigning skills, but he’ll lack the element of surprise this time. “The John James cat’s out of the bag,” McMaster says. “If you’re a Democratic strategist, you’d be like, ‘Oh well, he gave Stabenow a run so, yeah, we gotta shut him down early.’ ”
Darnoi and McMaster both wish James had skipped 2020 and had focused instead on running in 2022 for Congress, or, even going all the way to challenge Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. “He could have continued to be the conservative darling, raising money and trying to help Michigan Republicans in state and congressional races, supporting the Senate candidate,” Darnoi says. “If he had done all the glad-handing, he would have had a national or statewide platform for 2022.”
Not everyone thinks James is dead in the water if he loses to Peters. Grossmann says two solid runs for Senate have the potential to effectively bolster his overall name recognition. Political commentator Bill Ballenger agrees: “Let’s say Trump loses Michigan by a substantial margin, but James comes within an inch of beating Peters. People might say, ‘This guy ran with the wind in his face twice and did better than expected, and he deserves another shot.’ ”