Jacques: At lackluster convention, John James shines

Ingrid Jacques
The Detroit News

Mackinac Island — If Michigan Republicans are pumped for 2020 — and they'll need to be if they hope to help President Donald Trump to reelection — it didn't show up in attendance at their biennial convention here.

Despite an all-star cast of speakers, attendance was down. 

Veteran GOP strategist Saul Anuzis estimated turnout this weekend was one-third less than usual. He and others said typically 1,500 to 2,000 show up for the confab, which this year featured Vice President Mike Pence, former White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders, star Texas congressman Dan Crenshaw and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy.

A state GOP spokesman disputes the fact attendance was down and says attendance numbers were around 1,400 -- registration spiked once the party was able to announce Pence would speak. 

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.

Yet for the first time in anyone's memory, the Grand Hotel's nearly 400 rooms weren't fully booked by conference attendees.

Anuzis thought the attendance fall-off could be attributed to the fact that the speakers list wasn't finalized until late.

But a West Michigan GOP operative believes the lower numbers are telling.

"This is a significant decrease and it may signal a lack of enthusiasm for our prospects," he said. 

Missing along with the bodies were signs of over-the-top support for Trump. 

That was reserved for John James, the Detroit businessman who is hoping to unseat incumbent Democratic Sen. Gary Peters next fall.

James, who lost a challenge to Debbie Stabenow, Michigan's senior Democratic Senator, in 2018, moved through the Grand Hotel like a rock star.

“I walked out onto the porch here yesterday, and the energy was unreal,” James said in an interview Saturday with The Detroit News. “I feel like now there’s an energy, there’s an excitement. I really feel personally blessed that a lot of this energy is in support of my candidacy.”  

Most of the conference attendees mentioned James as the candidate who has them buzzing. 

“Everyone wants to be taking selfies with him,” says Anuzis, a former Michigan GOP chair.

The fan club includes Pence, who was a keynote speaker Saturday at the conference.  

"He [James] has been inspiring people all across America, and he will be the next senator from Michigan,” said Pence, who quipped that he’s been a supporter of James even “before he was cool.” 

Betsy Ankney, political director at the National Republican Senatorial Committee and former campaign manager for Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson, said during a Friday panel discussion that having a strong Senate candidate can be a large draw at the polls, and someone like James could help reach a different set of voters than Trump.

In this Sept. 23, 2017, file photo, John James speaks at the Mackinac Republican Leadership Conference on Mackinac Island, Mich. James, an Iraq War veteran and businessman, is seeking the GOP nomination to run against Democratic U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow in 2018. On Friday, May 4, 2018, James launched his first campaign ad that highlighted his military combat experience.

James is 38 and African American, and while passionate about his Republican values, he’s tailored his messaging to be more inclusive. 

“I have the same message whether you’re black or white, Democrat or Republican, urban or rural,” he says. “It’s going to be a message of getting things done.”

He’s also more confident in his priorities — centered on jobs, education, health care, infrastructure — and less reliant on identifying with Trump. 

“This race for me is about the people in the state of Michigan and our priorities. I will support the president when he supports Michigan, and when he doesn’t support it, it is my role to advocate for my state and change his mind,” James says. “I am my own man.”