Michigan military veteran and businessman John James is hoping the second time’s a charm in a run for U.S. Senate, this time challenging Democratic Sen. Gary Peters in 2020.
The 37-year-old Republican from Farmington Hills declared Thursday — the 75th anniversary of D-Day — that he’s again seeking the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate in Michigan.
“I’d like to announce I’m running for U.S. Senate after careful deliberation and thoughtful prayer. I believe that the time, again, is to serve. I believe that, right now, nothing has changed,” James said on Fox News.
His announcement comes seven months after James lost to Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Lansing by a closer-than-expected 6.5 percentage points.
“We need the courage what was exhibited to us on D-Day. We need politicians who will go into Washington and will put service before self,” James continued.
“We need people who understand that this country is broken because career politicians continue to run on the issues without any inkling or desire to fix them.”
Peters, who is seeking a second term, has been ramping up fundraising efforts in recent weeks. A new online fundraising pitch late Wednesday told supporters, “John James is in! We need your support.”
“I’m focused on continuing to deliver results for Michigan,” Peters said in a Thursday statement.
“I’ll keep working with anyone to improve life for Michiganders, whether it’s to expand training programs so everyone has the skills needed to find good-paying jobs, protect our Great Lakes or lower the cost of health care and prescription drugs.”
Political analysts suggested James announcement likely clears the GOP field, allowing him to avoid the expense and effort of the primary challenge he experienced last year in defeating well-funded Grosse Pointe businessman Sandy Pensler.
“I’m sure the Republican poobahs are relieved he finally made up his mind about challenging Peters. It would seem to give the Michigan GOP its best chance at a 2020 U.S. Senate win, but it will be tougher than they think,” said longtime analyst Bill Ballenger, a former GOP state lawmaker in Michigan.
“The big unknown is that Trump himself is going to be on the ballot, and James is extremely identified with Trump. Assuming he still runs as a Trump Republican, as Trump’s fortunes go in Michigan, that will have a great effect on how well James may do against Peters.”
Trump trailed five of the top Democratic presidential hopefuls in Michigan in a May 28-30 Glengariff Group poll, with former Vice President Joe Biden and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont holding 12-percentage-point advantages. The survey had a margin of error of plus-minus 4 percentage points.
Battle of military credentials
A former congressman and investment adviser from Oakland County, Peters also has military credentials, serving over a decade in the U.S. Navy Reserve. He volunteered again soon after the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001.
Peters reported more than $1.89 million in fundraising for the first three months of the year, finishing the quarter with over $3 million in the bank. His campaign said it was the largest first quarter haul for any U.S. Senate candidate in Michigan history.
Peters’ Twitter account made no mention of James’ Thursday campaign news, instead honoring D-Day and the “brave men and women stared tyranny in the eye, stormed the beaches of Normandy — and won.”
“My dad served in the Army in World War II and fought Nazi forces to liberate Europe,” Peters wrote.
“It was my dad’s service that inspired me to volunteer for the Navy Reserve — and why I’ll continue to fight for our brave men and women in uniform, and all those who served.”
James is an Iraq war veteran who was endorsed by Trump and Kid Rock during his 2018 campaign. He plans an official campaign kickoff early next year.
“John James is a true patriot who has dedicated his life to the service of our nation,” said Michigan GOP Chairwoman Laura Cox.
“I am confident that next year Michigan will send a leader to the U.S. Senate who will get something done for the people of our state. It’s time for a change from Gary Peters, who has been so ineffective that 43% of Michigan voters don’t even know his name.”
Michigan Democratic Party Chairwoman Lavora Barnes said voters “soundly rejected” James and his platform in 2018.
“Michigan voters will not be fooled by a reworked image of a failed candidate. We are very fortunate to have Gary Peters working hard for all of us in the U.S. Senate and representing the interests of Michiganders in every corner of the state, Barnes said.
“The Republicans are making a bold choice in trying to remake John James into a palatable candidate following a failed campaign filled with missteps and policy plans that did not represent the best interests of Michiganders.”
James a ‘rising star’
In recent weeks, James had been recruited by Republican leaders in the Senate and House, where they hoped to convince James to run for Congress in Michigan’s 11th District against freshman Rep. Haley Stevens, D-Rochester Hills.
He was considered by the White House as a candidate to be the next ambassador to the United Nations earlier this year before the nomination went to U.S. Ambassador to Canada Kelly Knight Craft.
Trump has called James a “rising star,” though he never visited Michigan to campaign for him in 2018.
In his 2018 campaign, James repeatedly said he would back Trump “2,000%,” aligning himself with Trump’s agenda of opposing sanctuary cities, securing the Southern border and backing the president’s economic policies.
James is president of the James Group International, a supply-chain management firm, his family’s business, in southwest Detroit.
“I understand what we need to do, because I have experience as a business leader, as a job creator, how to protect our economy from socialism, how to bring people together and unite people to make sure that we can defeat the evils that face us today,” James said Thursday on Fox.
“I also, as a combat veteran, understand the service and sacrifice that our veterans make every single day and (am) willing to stand up for this country — not any party, not any ideology. But putting country first, putting Michigan first and looking forward to continuing my service.”
Last year, James won the most votes of any Republican top-of-the-ticket candidate in the past decade, topping the 1,874,834 votes that Rick Snyder won in his 2010 gubernatorial landslide victory, which is the third-highest in the 2008-18 period.
James also received about 648,600 more votes in 2018 than Peters’ opponent, Terri Lynn Land, did in 2014. Peters defeated Land by 13 percentage points.
James raised nearly $12.6 million to Stabenow’s $17.9 million. James said Thursdayhe plans to donate 5 cents from every dollar he raises for his campaign to charity.
James’ campaign said he got the idea from an Army tradition known as the Nickel Ride, where first-time pilots give a nickel from the year they are born to their flight instructors.
“My parents have always taught us to give back. My faith tells me to give back. I’ve been blessed, and I’m going to do just that in my campaign,” James said in a statement.
Challenges for James
Dennis Lennox, a Republican strategist in Michigan, said James is a good “get” for Cox, noting James could have sat on the sidelines while building a political network in preparation for the governor’s race in 2022.
“This time James is going to have change things up. He must move past the platitudes and his military service by getting a solid grasp of the issues and policy,” Lennox said.
“Peters is as good as it gets for Democrats. Don’t forget he overcame the Republican tidal wave of 2014.”
Ballenger cautioned that Peters needs to improve his name identification, which is not as recognizable in Michigan as Stabenow’s.
“Peters has worked very hard, and he’s improved dramatically as a candidate and public speaker and has positioned himself somewhat to the moderate side of Stabenow and stressed bipartisan cooperation,” Ballenger said.
“He hasn’t really done anything wrong, but he just wasn’t penetrating with the electorate. … He’s just not as strong of an incumbent as Stabenow.”
The biggest challenge for James and the GOP is likely to be activating the thousands of Trump voters who didn’t vote in 2018, Lennox said.
“There’s no history in Michigan of Senate nominees driving turnout, so this will be a massive challenge for the party and its Senate nominee,” he said.
James, who is African-American and part of the millennial generation, brings diversity to the overwhelmingly white Republican Party.
Although he’s popular with traditional GOP rank-and-file, James struggled to attract black voters despite aggressive campaigning. He received less than 5 percent of the vote in the Democratic stronghold of Detroit, which has the most African Americans in the state.
Kyle Kondik of the University of Virginia Center for Politics said James’ decision to run is a good development for Senate Republicans because it gives them a “credible candidate” in one of their few opportunities next fall to pick up a seat.
Kondik edits the The Crystal Ball politics newsletter, which rates Michigan’s Senate race as leaning Democratic.
“My guess is that the Senate results will largely mirror the presidential results. As of now, I think I’d rather be the Democrats in Michigan than the Republicans,” he said.
“Trump’s 2016 victory there was the most tenuous of any of his statewide wins — but if Trump wins the state, having a Senate candidate who can capitalize on that is good for the Republicans.”
Trump won Michigan in 2016 by 10,704 votes, or two-tenths of a percentage point. Polling over the last two years has since shown the president’s approval ratings to be below 50% in Michigan.
Fewer than 36% of likely Michigan voters said in a recent statewide poll they would vote to re-elect Trump, compared with more than 51% who said they plan to vote for someone new.
The same poll found about 44% approved of the job the president is doing while 52% disapproved.
Trump polled especially poorly among African Americans and women.
Staff writer Jonathan Oosting contributed