To win Michigan in 2020, it’s all about focus


When asked what President Trump needs to do to win Michigan’s 16 electoral votes in 2020, Republican Senate candidate John James pauses, thinks about it for 13 seconds, and answers.

“The president needs to stay focused.”

Specifically, he needs to stay focused on what most Michiganders care about: “Healthcare, economy, jobs, making sure that our infrastructure is strong and solid.”

If Trump can do that, James says, “then people are going to say, ‘You know what, when it comes right down to it, this isn’t just the difference between Twitter and a paycheck. This is about…killing the goose that laid the golden egg.’”

Although James lost his race for the Senate in 2018, his 6.5-point loss exceeded expectations. James came much closer to winning than any Republican Senate candidate in Michigan since incumbent Sen. Spencer Abraham lost to now-Sen. Debbie Stabenow by 1.6 points in 2000. James’ loss came in a year when female Democrats swept Michigan’s three statewide executive offices and picked up two congressional seats from Republicans.

James is confident this campaign will go better. He shows off his quick wit when asked what he’ll do differently in this campaign: “Win.”

What did he learn from 2018? “Don’t have a primary.”

Both of these are easier said than done. But James doesn’t expect to cruise to victory and unseat incumbent Democratic Sen. Gary Peters. He’s staying focused. “We had a saying in the military, and we had it drilled into us: Complacency kills. Complacency kills. Complacency kills.”

James doesn’t take any endorsement for granted, even though he’s widely considered the GOP’s best shot to beat Peters.

Assuming he gets the nomination, James will hope to follow in the electoral footsteps of Sens. John Thune of South Dakota, and Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, rather than Linda McMahon of Connecticut or Erskine Bowles in North Carolina. All four were renominated for Senate again after losing their first general election. Thune and Shaheen won and still sit in the Senate. McMahon and Bowles lost both times. McMahon later served as administrator of the Small Business Administration under Trump and Bowles was appointed to co-chair President Barack Obama’s commission on fiscal responsibility.

Having Peters as his opponent rather than Stabenow should help James, as will the fact that it’s not a midterm election year and Michigan’s political pendulum may not be swinging to the left as it did in 2018. According to Morning Consult polling data from the second quarter, Peters is tied for second-lowest total approval rating in the Senate, at 34%. Four out of ten Michiganders reply “don’t know” when asked whether they approve or disapprove of Peters, the largest share for any senator in their home state.

If he did reach the Senate, James says his role model would be the only current black Republican in the Senate, Tim Scott of South Carolina. James says that Scott “has a masterful balance of both politics and policy…He understands when and how to stand up to say what needs to be said without crying wolf.”

As a black Republican with both a military and a business background who speaks well and doesn’t compromise his principles, James has a bright political future ahead of him, assuming he can get past Peters. But he remains focused on the task at hand.

I asked him an admittedly silly question about the future. What might happen if he gets a prime time address at the 2020 Republican National Convention, beats Peters, and makes a name for himself in the Senate? What if he starts getting invited to speak in Iowa and New Hampshire?

James immediately cut me off: “No, no. … Running for political office is terrifying. You wouldn’t do it for any other reason than to speak for people who can’t speak for themselves. … The first thing I need to do is win this Senate seat.”

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