Why Trump's trying to boost James' uphill Senate fight with Stabenow

Leonard N. Fleming
The Detroit News
John James visited with President Donald Trump in the White House on Sept. 17, 2018.

Republican U.S. Senate contender John James is trailing by double digits in the polls, but it hasn't stopped President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence from seeking to bolster the political novice's fortunes.

James was hosted at the White House by Trump in mid-September and the president shared the moment on Twitter. Pence had his second fundraiser last month in Washington, D.C., for the 37-year-old Farmington Hills businessman and military veteran, who Republicans hope can defeat longtime Democratic U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Lansing in November.

Since a Sept. 30-Oct. 2 Detroit News-WDIV poll found James trailing Stabenow 53 percent to 35 percent with about 10 percent of voters undecided, experts wonder why Trump and Pence would devote their energies to the former Apache helicopter pilot when other Republican Senate races are more competitive. 

"I really don't understand it. In terms of the 2018 Senate races, there are lots of other races where (Trump) potentially would be more useful," said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato's Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics, where he follows congressional races.

"I also don't think that the folks involved on the Republican side of Senate races, I don't think they're prioritizing Michigan at all. Stabenow is a big favorite."

Among the races where Republican Senate candidates are polling better than James are Wisconsin, New Jersey, Ohio and Pennsylvania where Democratic incumbents are running. Trump won in all of the states except New Jersey.

Trump and Pence's public dalliance began a week and a half before the Aug. 7 primary when the president in a thunderbolt of a tweet endorsed James, helping to secure his victory over well-funded Grosse Pointe businessman Sandy Pensler. He became the first African-American Republican nominated to a high-level statewide office in Michigan since former Wayne County Executive Bill Lucas in 1986. 

Pence has since stumped for him at a West Bloomfield Township country club in late August and implored the GOP to back him, calling James a "special man with a special story." During the mid-September Washington visit, Trump took James to the National Republican Senatorial Committee fundraiser following Pence's fundraiser and touted him to key GOP national leaders such as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

Cash numbers won't be available until Oct. 15 or later on how the Pence fundraisers may have helped James. On July 18, Stabenow had $6.27 million in the bank compared with James' nearly $869,000, and had spent another $3.2 million to reserve television air time for the last four weeks before Election Day.

James launched his first ad in the past week, not mentioning that he is a Republican and blaming "both parties" for problems like "failing schools" and "forgotten veterans."

Trump's endorsement can have some benefit in energizing GOP voters, especially if he visits the state, said Bill Ballenger, a Michigan political historian and former GOP legislator based in Lansing.

"Is Trump going to come into Michigan and really make a big play for John James? That's the real question," said Ballenger.  "And we haven't seen that commitment. We have no idea whether with six weeks left before the election if he's going to do that."

Kondik isn't so sure Trump's campaigning would be helpful.

The president's "endorsement power is definitely magnified in a primary kind of environment," but a general election is different, especially given low popularity numbers for Trump in Michigan, he said.

The latest Detroit News poll found that 56 percent of likely voters view the president unfavorably compared with 36 percent favorably. The survey had a margin of error of plus-minus 4 percentage points. 

Black candidacy effect

Other factors may be influencing the White House's involvement, Ballenger said.

"Even though they are trying to do a lot of things to help James, I would still say they consider this a second-tier, at best, election possibility," he said.

The White House is likely helping James because he is the first black candidate "ever to be nominated ... by either major political party here in Michigan to run for the U.S. Senate," Ballenger said.

The Trump-Pence strategy of helping a flagging James campaign also may be because of the importance of Michigan in Trump's 2020 re-election campaign, Kondik said. The president beat Democrat Hillary Clinton in the state by 10,704 votes in 2016.

John James, left, waves to the crowd after introducing Vice President Mike Pence at a campaign stop in West Bloomfield.

The James campaign isn't saying whether Trump will make a visit to Michigan, but the Republican candidate spent his primary campaign aligning himself with the president on  issues such as sanctuary cities and economic policies.

"It shows how serious people think his candidacy is nationally that he gets the attention of the White House," said Stu Sandler, a Republican consultant who has been advising the James campaign. "They don't have a lot of time to spare on races. And they really like the profile that James cuts as a veteran and as a businessman."

Another strategy could be getting exposure for James this year and capitalizing on the improved name recognition in another two years by having James run against Democratic U.S. Sen. Gary Peters of Bloomfield Township when he is up for re-election, Kondik said.

"Michigan is not a must-win state for Trump in 2020, but it's one of the states that you'd expect to be hotly contested again," he said.

To gain traction, James has been saying — and the White House echoing — that he is needed in the Senate to protect the GOP's tax overhaul, build a better economy, strengthen small businesses and support conservative justices.

Stabenow "has been standing in the way of our agenda," Pence said in his August visit.

Last month, Michigan's senior senator told The News that "I'm very comfortable running on my record" and that James' accusations of ineffectiveness "is pure politics, and folks can say whatever they want. In this day and age, it doesn't have to be true but people know what is true."

Regarding Trump and James, Stabenow, "he also has to describe why he says he's with Donald Trump 2,000 percent, because I'm with Michigan 2,000 percent."

Trying to attack Stabenow

In a recent interview, James said the election isn't about Trump but rather his insistence that Stabenow hasn't been effective and supports liberal policies that aren't good for the country.

"Donald Trump has been in Washington for about 20 months. Debbie Stabenow has been in Washington for 20 years. She's obsessed with Donald Trump because she has nothing to stand on her own," James said, adding that the senator has failed to deliver for the state.

Miranda Margowsky, a Stabenow campaign spokeswoman, disagrees, saying "Sen. Stabenow works with everyone, Republican or Democrat, when it's good for Michigan."

"Her strong bipartisan record of accomplishments on things like the farm bill, Great Lakes, mental health and cutting prices for prescription drugs speaks for itself," she said.

In her first campaign ad, Stabenow touted her opposition to the Trump administration's budget plan to eliminate the $300 million Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, and her leadership in helping restore the aid in a bipartisan coalition of legislators.   

Having the president campaign in Michigan, despite a 56 percent unpopularity rating, can give his former opponent a boost, said Pensler, who knows the sting of a Trump tweet.

And a visit to Michigan, Pensler said, "is important to (Trump's) re-election prospects. It's not one he won with a huge margin. It was close, so it's important for him to stay engaged in the state."

The president's last visit to Michigan was in March at a rally in northern Macomb County.

"I would certainly think that they could help him raise some money so he can get on the air and get his message out, hold her accountable," Pensler added about James. "But what you're talking about is a big spread (polling numbers), though. If the president can help him raise funds to do that, that's obviously going to be helpful."


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