Finley: GOP may be wasting James in 2020 bid

Nolan Finley
The Detroit News

John James is a dream candidate for Republicans. But they may be squandering his future in pitting him against U.S. Sen. Gary Peters in 2020.

James, with the encouragement of GOP leaders, announced his challenge to the incumbent Democrat last week, just eight months after his bid to unseat Michigan's senior Democratic senator, Debbie Stabenow, failed.

FILE - John James campaigns at a rally for GOP candidates for office at Villa Penna in Sterling Heights, MI on November 1, 2018.

Peters will be an easier opponent for James, the thinking goes, because he's served just one term and has lower name recognition, and he won't be as well-funded as Stabenow was last year.

James certainly does have the makings of a political superstar. 

The president of his family business, auto supplier James Group International of Detroit, James is a West Point graduate and Ranger-qualified fighter pilot who flew combat missions over Iraq during eight years in the Army. 

He's 37, charming and defies political pigeon-holing. He comes across as a temperate conservative who supports President Donald Trump, but doesn't forgive him all his sins. 

As an African American, he's both a unicorn and a sacred cow in his party. Republicans value nothing more than a black conservative like James; he assures them they aren't the racists their critics contend.

James is bound to attract national attention, as he did in 2018 — Fox News loves him. And perhaps he'll draw money from the party's mega donors, who weren't as generous with him as they should have been in his first race. 

Still, I'm not sure this is the right campaign for James.

Republicans are correct that Peters is less formidable than Stabenow. But as an incumbent he'll have little trouble raising money. He, too, is a veteran — a retired Naval Reserve officer. The state's business community likes him. And he's proven himself to be a tough campaigner.

He won't be the pushover the GOP believes him to be.

The wild card in the race is Donald Trump. James' camp is betting that running on the ballot with Trump in 2020 will improve his chances. It could just as likely doom him. A Detroit News/WDIV-Ch. 4 poll released last weak finds Michigan voters, 18 months before Election Day, are not crazy about the president.

The chances of a Trump surge carrying other GOP candidates to victory seem slim.

And while he came closer to defeating Stabenow than any candidate she's faced since defeating Sen. Spence Abraham to claim the seat in 2000, he still lost by 6.5 percentage points, which doesn't really qualify as "nearly winning," as some commentators have described the 2018 contest.

The risk for James is that losing two Senate races in two years will label him a loser and, at a too-young age, destroy what should be a bright political future.

He has time to wait for the right moment. If he is feeling froggy now, he could jump into the 11th District race, where first-term Rep. Haley Stevens will be defending a seat she won in a district that demographically still favors Republicans.

John James is too good to waste. But I'm afraid that's what Republicans are doing by standing him one more time against a solid Democratic incumbent.

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