GOP sees bright future for James after close Senate race

Leonard N. Fleming
The Detroit News
Michigan Republican candidate for U.S. Senate John James concedes the race to Sen. Debbie Stabenow and thanks his supporters at his election night event at James Group International in Detroit.

Moments after he conceded last week in his Senate campaign, Republican challenger John James declared "we're not done" in a speech that was elusive about his political future.

If his legion of political admirers have anything to say about it, he's not.

Though James, 37, just lost a closer-than-expected race to Democratic U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, political experts and Republicans around the state are already plotting out his options for elected office. Stabenow won 52 percent to 46 percent for James, a political novice.

The Farmington Hills businessman whom President Donald Trump has called a "rising star" is being urged to consider making another Senate run, seeking a congressional seat and possibly even running for governor in four or eight years.

Although the African-American Republican is popular with traditional GOP voters, he struggled in last Tuesday's election with black voters. In the Democratic stronghold of Detroit, which has the most African-Americans in the state, James garnered 4.8 percent of the vote, despite aggressive campaigning.

But the former Army Apache helicopter pilot and Iraq war veteran is getting noticed because he won the most votes of any Republican top-of-the-ticket candidate in the past decade. The 1,927,232 votes for James topped 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 is being mentioned as a front runner for the party's nomination in 2020 against first-term Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township. James lost by 6 percentage points to Stabenow, the closest any challenger has come.

"He's a hot property, he's the future of the party," said Ronald Weiser, chairman of the Michigan Republican Party and longtime donor and fundraiser. "He's young, he's handsome, he's got a great resume. And he's certainly motivated and dedicated to serve, and you put all those things together and I think he's got a great future."

Weiser acknowledged that James is "a successful businessman so he doesn't need a job." But he said James' next political step should be to challenge Peters if he chooses.

"I think running for Senate, in my opinion, would be a place where he could prevail and be a great servant for the people of Michigan," given his fundraising prowess and popularity, he said.

Peters would be vulnerable to James, considering the amount of money the Republican could raise and the potential bump he could receive with Trump running for re-election in a state Trump narrowly won in 2016, said Steve Mitchell, a pollster and Republican consultant.

James raised $9.84 million through Oct. 17 to Stabenow's $13.02 million, according to federal campaign finance reports. The Republican got a big fundraising boost after the primary when Vice President Mike Pence made several fundraising and campaign trips to Michigan.

"If I were John James, I would have started my campaign for the United States Senate yesterday, and I would be running in 2020," Mitchell said. "If you started running right now, you'd have a very good opportunity given the fact that he only lost by 6 percent. (You could) clear the field and have a straight shot at Gary Peters."

James, he said, "has real momentum. He has become to darling of the party."

James has been mum about his future.

When asked before the election what his future would hold if he lost, he said, "My passion is service, and the first (one) I'm going to ask when we finish this thing, I'm going to talk to my wife."

The couple have two boys aged 3 and 5 with a child on the way.

Another option would be for James to run in two years against Democratic U.S. Rep.-elect Haley Stevens, who beat Republican Lena Epstein in the 11th Congressional District that includes parts of Wayne and Oakland counties, Mitchell said.

But campaigning for the House would be a step down from the Senate, he said. It also is
"going to be a very difficult race in 2020" running against a female incumbent, Mitchell said.

James helps run the family business, the James Group International, a logistics and supply chain management company in Southwest Detroit. As a youngster, James swept the floors and learned how to use a forklift. He is the company's president.

After graduating from Brother Rice High School, James did a West Point prep stint for a year in New Jersey and then graduated in 2004 from West Point, where he played rugby. He served in the Army for eight years and fought in Iraq from 2007 to 2009.

On the campaign trail, James established his conservative credentials and promoted his background that caught the attention of voters and the White House.

From Grand Rapids to Livonia to Washington Township, the crowds at James' rallies grew during the campaign. Among those who campaigned with him were Pence, Florida U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio and Kid Rock.

Julia Sullivan, 19, who voted for James, liked him. This was the first election for the University of Michigan student, who is originally from Thousand Oaks, Calif., and who met James at a recent rally.

"He's a no-nonsense guy. ...People will try to sugarcoat things and I'm not a person who likes sugarcoating. I'd rather have the facts, someone who's going to be very honest with me," she said. "And John James seems like a very honest man.

"The way he talks, it's kind of like he preaches to you. I have a strong faith, and I can definitely see he has a strong faith, and that's what really appeals to me, too."

Mae Ochtel, 58, of Canton, took a selfie with James at the same Livonia rally. Ochtel described him as "nonpartisan who truly is for the working person and he truly is the epitome of what American really is, the regular type of person who wants the best for the United States of America."

But others weren't enthusiastic. Black voters in Metro Detroit  often bashed him on social media sites over his vocal backing of Trump in the primary election.

Darlene Moore, 59, of Farmington Hills voted shortly after James did on Election Day and said she didn't care for the Republican, especially given his emphatic embrace of Trump and his policies.

"Just because you're black doesn't mean you deserve that right to be (elected) in that position," said Moore, who is African-American. "I don't care about him being the first black (senator in Michigan). He's for 45 (Trump)."

Last Tuesday, James told The News that he lobbied for "everyone's vote" when asked about his success in the black communities around Michigan.

"Of course, I recognize there are African-Americans like me who may be in the Democrat Party," James said, but then added, "I've always been taught that we're independent thinkers. Too many people have died for us to (not) think independently. I believe our message resonates across party lines, across racial lines."

Wayne Bradley, a Republican consultant who once headed up African-American engagement for the Michigan Republican Party, said he thought James would do better in Detroit, but being tied to Trump and other factors led to a subpar result.

"I think if he spends more time over the next couple of years in that community and doing different things, I think he'll have a better chance," Bradley said. "I think he has to show that he's genuinely entrenched in the community, whether it's community service work. And just listen to his constituents."

James' options could include running for Oakland County executive, which in turn could be a springboard to another office, such as governor, he said, 

"I think his future is as bright as he chooses he wants it to be," Bradley said.

James is going to ponder his future after a needed rest from the campaign and time with his family, said Stu Sandler, a longtime GOP political consultant who worked on James' campaign.

"I think the sky's the limit for John James," Sandler said. "I think there are a lot of people who look at John James' future and say, 'It's unlimited.'"

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GOP's top voter getters

U.S. Senate challenger John James received the most votes of any Republican statewide  top-of-ticket candidate in the 2008-2018 period (excluding education races).

  1. Year  Candidate       Office     Votes
  2. 2018 John James      Senate   1,927,232
  3. 2018 Tom Leonard  AG          1,903,771
  4. 2010 Rick Snyder     Gov.       1,874,834
  5. 2018 Bill Schuette    Gov.       1,853,559
  6. 2018 Treder Lang    SOS        1,828,675
  7. 2012 Pete Hoekstra Senate  1,767,386
  8. 2010 Bill Schuette    AG          1,649,223
  9. 2014 Ruth Johnson  SOS        1,649,047
  10. 2008 Jack Hoogendyk Sen.    1,641,070
  11. 2014 Rick Snyder      Gov.       1,607,399

Source: Michigan Secretary of State's Office