GOP rising star John James faces trouble at top of ticket

FILE - In this Dec. 18, 2019, file photo, Republican Senate candidate John James appears at a campaign rally for President Donald Trump in Battle Creek, Mich. James has been called a rising star of the Republican Party so many times it’s become a cliche, but his race against Sen. Gary Peters in a presidential battleground state has gotten dicier. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya, File)


Associated Press

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 will be back in Michigan today to speak to African American community leaders in Detroit about the coronavirus, then tour a Ford plant in Ypsilanti that’s been manufacturing ventilators. James’ campaign didn’t respond Wednesday to a question about whether James will join him. 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.”