Political newcomer John James won Michigan’s Tuesday Republican senatorial primary. The previous underdog finished with a solid 9 percent victory over opponent Sandy Pensler, thanks in part to a late-July endorsement from Donald Trump. Trump also recorded a telephone pitch for James that went out to Republican voters the day before they headed to the polls.
James, who suffers from sparse name recognition, will face Democrat Debbie Stabenow when voters head to the polls in November. Prior to the primary, Stabenow held a nearly 20-point lead in a hypothetical head-to-head contest between the Democrat senator and the political novice, leading national pundits to write off the contest.
RealClearPolitics, for instance, sees the seat staying in Democratic hands because of Republicans’ failure to “come up with a solid challenger.” Even with the increasing focus on the 2018 midterm elections—which will determine control of the Senate for the remainder of President Trump’s first term—Michigan’s Senate battle remains but a blip in the national coverage.
Ignoring the Michigan race, however, is a mistake, with several factors making this a contest to watch. First, beltway observers ignore James’ appeal. Salena Zito, whose on-the-ground, back-roads reporting of election 2018 proved prescient, captured this reality in her profile of the senatorial candidate, “John James Could Be the Future Republicans Have Been Waiting for.”
James is a young, accomplished, determined, devout black man, the kind of new conservative that the Grand Old Party needs to shake up next year’s midterm election cycle. He is at once full of energy, grace, command, and passion.
When this young man tells you he is running on conviction, everything about him tells you he is not a poser. He says: “I am called to a life of service. I want to serve my country and my community and my state. When I would come back from Iraq on leave during the great recession, the economic and societal devastation I saw here in my own state floored me.’”
Michigan has seen a solid recovery, but only after abandoning career politicians, such as former Detroit Democrat mayor and current convict Kwame Kilpatrick, and former Democrat governor Jennifer Granholm. After Granholm ran the state into the ground with liberal policies, in 2010, Michiganders—myself included—gave businessman and self-described nerd Rick Snyder a chance to help the ailing state.
Boasting solid Republican majorities in the state legislature, Snyder adopted pro-growth policies that helped the recovery. The Flint water crisis, however, marred Snyder’s last two years in office. As an outsider, James cannot be tarred with blame for Flint’s failure, allowing him to focus on his impressive business background instead.
According to his campaign website, James has two master’s degrees from Penn State University, and a master of business administration from the University of Michigan. As president of his family’s business, James Group International, “James has led the company from $35 million to $137 million in revenue while creating 100 additional jobs in Michigan and around the country since 2012.”
Trump’s surprise victory in Michigan (and Wisconsin!) two years ago shows the Republican label does not doom the appeal an outsider and businessman has for the blue-collar union households that dominate the Great Lakes landscape. The economic success under Trump will also provide James a stronger message: the success of the pro-growth policies of the Republican Party.
As an African-American, James also holds the race card, which may allow him to break the nearly impenetrable monopoly the Democratic Party holds over the state’s black population. In communities like Detroit, where blacks comprise 40 percent or more of the voting-age population, Democrats receive a whopping 94.8 percent of straight-ticket votes.
James insists: “I do not have a black message, I do not have a white message, I have an American message.” But sometimes the messenger matters too, and the young, energetic former combat veteran and helicopter pilot has just the cachet necessary to remind voters that it was under a Republican that black unemployment fell to its lowest level ever—down to 6.8 percent from a 16.8 percent high in 2010 under former President Barack Obama.
With the economic revival for once not bypassing African-Americans, the timing seems perfect for James to push the “walk away” message gathering steam elsewhere. Coupled with his solid conservative platform, which has garnered endorsements from conservative standard-bearers such as the National Right to Life, Susan B. Anthony List, the Family Research Council, and the Senate Conservative Fund, James seems poised to surprise the pundits and put the Michigan Senate race in play.