Saginaw and Bay City News (16/2). John James, an Army Rangers-qualified aviator, strutted confidently down the steps of a tremendous blue campaign bus, smiling but avoiding photographers snapping photos of Vice President Mike Pence and former White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders in downtown Holland last December.
Two weeks later, James jogged up to a podium in Battle Creek’s modest downtown events center. James stretched his arms, soaking in the cheers of thousands of President Donald Trump’s supporters packed together for a Christmas-themed rally.
Pence passionately endorsed James both nights, heralding the charismatic 38-year-old Farmington Hills businessman and African American veteran as the potential future of the Republican Party. Trump did not mention James during his two-hour appearance; the president was focused on the historic U.S. House vote to impeach him that same night.
Two years after James suffered a closer-than-expected but ultimately disappointing loss to U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, Republicans believe he could be their best shot at swiping a Senate seat from Democrats in decades. Democrats haven’t lost a Senate election since 1994.
“With President Donald Trump the White House and John James in the United States Senate, and with God’s help, we’re going to make Michigan and America more prosperous than ever before,” Pence said in Battle Creek.
It was a splashy end to what had been a muffled year. James hadn’t held any public campaign events in the seven months since his debut and largely ignored Michigan TV cameras and print reporters throughout 2019.
Instead, James spent the year consolidating his support in the Republican Party and setting up a fundraising operation to challenge incumbent U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township. The work appeared to start paying off in 2020.
Peters raised a sizeable war chest to ward off a Republican challenger in the same year he and Trump will seek second terms. James’ campaign started the new year announcing it beat Peters’ fundraising totals for the second consecutive quarter.
Days later, the latest statewide poll by Glengariff Group found James within the margin of error, affirming several previous polls that Peters’ campaign had waved off.
John Sellek, CEO of Harbor Strategic Public Affairs and a veteran Republican strategist, said James will have more advantages in his second attempt. James starts with more experience, money and name recognition and no GOP opponent to waste early resources on.
“I think his team learned from the last cycle that he needed to avoid a repeat of a Republican primary and they needed to raise the funding necessary to unseat a sitting U.S senator,” Sellek said. “If you were to write the review on 2019, you’d have to say that he has succeeded wildly in both accounts so far. That strategy took discipline and it paid off big time for him.”
Peters is one of only two Democratic senators up for reelection in a state Trump won. The race is drawing national attention and cash from deep pockets accordingly — the two candidates raised nearly $20 million between them so far.
The Senate race is set in a crucial battleground state, as Democrats see to rebuild the “blue wall” after Trump narrowly took Michigan in 2016. The Michigan Democratic Party expects the state will be roused to oust Trump from the White House and is organizing on the same energy that denied James in 2018.
“I know that John James and Donald Trump are going to walk in lockstep toward Michigan voters and voters hopefully are going to turn the other way,” said Michigan Democratic Party Chairwoman Lavora Barnes. “We’ve got a great candidate and a great U.S. senator.”
“I always run aggressive races,” Peters said in December. “I believe that you need to be out in the community, you need to be listening to folks in the state and you need to be out campaigning.”
James’ campaign declined multiple attempts to interview him for this story during the last several months. A James spokesperson said the campaign will be more available after a public launch event, planned sometime in the first quarter of 2020.
Meanwhile, James’ avoidance of reporters incensed the Michigan Democratic Party, which launched a website to highlight his “toxic” positions on abortion rights and the Affordable Care Act. Alex Japko, a spokesman for the party working on the Senate race, said James will face more scrutiny than the 2018 campaign.
The Michigan Democratic Party accused James of “hiding” from voters and obfuscating his relationship to polarizing figures who support his campaign like Trump, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, Kid Rock and Ukrainian businessmen who allegedly aided Rudy Giuliani to procure damaging information about the president’s political opponents.
James’ silence allowed him to evade commenting on controversies surrounding Trump, including impeachment and his decision to kill a top Iranian general without notifying Congress.
James was also silent after the president asserted on stage in Battle Creek that the late John Dingell might be in hell. State House Speaker Lee Chatfield, who spoke at the rally, and Republican congressmen from Michigan said the statement was inappropriate.
Peters isn’t necessarily in the spotlight either. Morning Consult’s quarterly surveys show 34% of Michigan voters don’t know who he is, the most of any senator up for re-election this year, though his approval rating is +7.
Peters hasn’t organized any public campaign-focused events yet either, but he held constituent events across the state last year. He didn’t directly criticize James but said being accessible is a big part of his job.
“If you aspire to be a United States senator, you can’t hide from the people of Michigan,” Peters said.
David Dulio, head of the political science department at Oakland University, said the race is in its very early stages. Though the looming presidential race will quickly suck up a lot of voters’ attention, both candidates have plenty of time to introduce themselves to the public.
Peters joined the U.S. Navy Reserve at age 34 and served for more than a decade in units at Selfridge Air National Guard Base. Peters served overseas in the Persian Gulf and he rejoined the Navy Reserve to serve overseas after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
James enrolled in the U.S. Military Academy at age 17 and became an Army Ranger-qualified aviator. He participated in multiple tours of duty in Iraq as an Apache pilot and touts bringing all of the soldiers under his command home alive.
Peters rose through the political ranks from a local city council seat to become a two-term state senator and three-term Congressman.
James has never held public office. After leaving the military, he became president of the family business, James Group International.
The global supply-chain management company was founded by his father, also named John James. Michigan Republican Party Chairwoman Laura Cox said James’ resume as a combat veteran and job creator are among his most appealing attributes.
Peters, a 61-year-old motorcycle enthusiast, is white but has represented some of the most diverse districts in Michigan. He won a competitive House primary in 2012 after being redistricted from the suburbs into a newly drawn district centered in Detroit.
James, a 38-year-old African American man, was thoroughly beat in the state’s most diverse counties in 2018. Campaign staff talk of him as a unique candidate who bring in people who don’t traditionally support Republicans.
Cox said James is a “fighter” for conservative values and policies. James warned of the dangers of socialism at Pence’s Holland rally.
Peters presents himself as a bipartisan lawmaker willing to work with Republicans to secure environmental protections and safeguard Michigan’s border with Canada. Peters’ team highlights his being named the fourth-most effective Democratic senator by the Center for Effective Lawmaking in 2019.
James said he’s an independent thinker at the Mackinac Republican Leadership Conference last year — the only time MLive was able to interview him in 2019. James shared that he was raised by Democrats at the Battle Creek rally, and called himself a “compassionate conservative.”
But Peters said his opponent is a dogmatic partisan, noting James expressed “2,000% support” for Trump’s agenda in 2018.
“Someone who says they support Donald Trump 2,000% is clearly very ideological and not very flexible and somebody who’s not out there listening to what voters have to say, but instead listens to what Donald Trump has to say,” Peters said.
Dulio said both candidates will need to increase turnout among their party’s respective bases in 2020, but independents will also play a key role. But the presidential race, and Peters’ role in the upcoming Senate impeachment hearings, could swallow any chance of the candidates appealing to moderates.
Peters said voters will see his focus on Michigan’s most important issues.
“I think Michigan voters are practical, common-sense people who certainly have partisan leanings, but ultimately they want someone who’s going to be open, accessible, listen to them, and try to find common ground to get things done,” Peters said.
Cox said voters are ready for new representation.
“People want somebody who’s solidly supporting the president and fighting for the President’s economic policies that benefit the families here in Michigan, that’s really important,” she said.