Michigan Senate candidate John James has been called a rising star of the Republican Party so many times it’s become a cliche.
The African American combat veteran, business owner and 38-year-old father of three brought down the house at the country's largest gathering of conservatives earlier this year. He has caught the attention of big donors and received the enthusiastic, all-caps praise of President Donald Trump on Twitter.
“He checks all the boxes, so to speak, from a candidate perspective,” said former Michigan Republican Party chairman Saul Anuzis.
All of the boxes except one: James has never won a general election. He lost the 2018 Senate race to Democrat Debbie Stabenow by 6.5 percentage points. But that better-than-expected showing against an incumbent with four decades in Michigan politics helped fuel his rise in conservative circles and spur hopes he can defeat Sen. Gary Peters, a less-known Democrat seeking his second term this fall.
Now James' bid for a victory big enough to equal his hype — running in one of the country's most competitive presidential battlegrounds — has suddenly gotten dicier. And it's come just as Republicans are scrapping for wins to help sustain their precarious Senate majority.
Although Trump narrowly won Michigan four years ago, the mood seems to be turning away from the president and the GOP. And unlike 2018, when Stabenow largely avoided talking about James, Democrats are on the attack — and their best weapon may be Trump at the top of the ticket.
For months, the party has been using digital ads and social media to attack James as a Trump ally who’s hiding from voters and avoiding questions about his far-right positions on issues such as health care. A website run by the Michigan Democratic Party, titled “John James Revealed,” counted the days James went without granting an interview to a Michigan TV news outlet — a number that at one point surpassed 300 days.
James’ critics are armed with comments from his 2018 bid, including a video where James says he supports Trump “2000%.” In another clip, James refers to the Affordable Care Act as a “monstrosity” that shows ”new conservative leadership is needed."
Democrats also are emboldened by their 2018 midterm election gains and by polls showing Trump is less popular in Michigan than Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who has exchanged jabs with the president over the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed nearly 5,000 people in the state and notched an unemployment rate of roughly 25%. On Wednesday, Trump threatened to withhold virus relief funding to Michigan after he said, incorrectly, that the state sent absentee ballots to millions of voters.
In a Fox News poll last month, 44% of Michigan voters had a favorable opinion of Trump, with 52% unfavorable. More than half of voters, 58%, had a favorable opinion of Whitmer, with 37% unfavorable. The Democratic governor got higher marks for her handling of the pandemic.
The numbers have some GOP campaign operatives “very, very worried about Trump being an anchor around Republicans’ necks,” said Michigan pollster Bernie Porn.
Trump returned to Michigan on Thursday to tour a Ford plant in Ypsilanti that's been manufacturing ventilators and for a listening session with African American leaders. James, donning a mask, attended the discussion with the president, who wasn't wearing one. Trump said he's seen James on TV, adding, “You’re doing a fantastic job. If you do come to Washington, you have my ear.” Trump later recognized James as he wrapped up a speech, saying “We’re going to have a great senator, John James.”
Trump’s son Donald Trump Jr. held a fundraiser for James on Monday.
“The Trumps are bringing in wealthy donors from across the country to funnel money into my far-right opponent’s pockets in an attempt to buy this election,” Peters said in an email to supporters.
Asked in an interview if he still supports Trump “2000%," James wouldn't say, adding that it's “kind of pathetic” that Peters, an incumbent, is attacking him “rather than running on what he's done.”
“I’m looking forward to running my own race, being my own man,” James said. "Of course I support the president for reelection.”
He also pushed back on Democrats' claim that he's hiding, saying he's been focused on his family — including a son born last year — and the multimillion-dollar automotive logistics company his father started with a single truck after moving to Detroit from Mississippi in 1971.
James’ supporters say that the West Point graduate's service as an Army pilot and successful business record will appeal to the working class voters who backed Trump in 2016 and that he will attract African American voters who traditionally back Democrats.
James speaks often of how his family went from slavery to a Senate bid in four generations, calling himself “the walking result of the American dream." He told a gathering of conservatives that the election is “about freeing those in socioeconomic bondage in our cities” by showing them the benefits of “free will and free enterprise.” He told The Associated Press his message is consistent regardless of audience.
“I don’t have a black message or a white message or an Asian message," he said. "I have a red, white and blue message.”
James has focused heavily on raising money, and it's paid off. James brought in more than Peters for each of the past three quarters. His top donors include members of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos' family — heirs to the Amway marketing empire — and businessman Richard Uihlein, who's active in backing right-wing candidates.
Democrats also are investing heavily in the race, but James' haul will help in beating back their attacks.
“This time I will have the resources to tell the truth, and they will see that Sen. Peters and (Senate Minority Leader) Chuck Schumer and their D.C. allies have been lying about me, and who I am," James said, "and I don’t believe that will be received very well by the people of Michigan.”
Associated Press writer Darlene Superville contributed to this report from Ypsilanti, Michigan.
This story has been corrected to show that Trump is meeting with African American leaders in Ypsilanti, not Detroit.