African American, an Army vet and a Republican. How will John James fare in Michigan?

The 39-year-old Iraq War veteran may be the GOP’s best hope of picking up a Senate seat as Democrats try to flip the upper chamber

Two summers ago, during his first bid for the Senate, John James was backstage at a Ted Nugent concert at the DTE Energy Music Theatre in Clarkston, Michigan, about 40 minutes northwest of Detroit. Following an impassioned introduction in which Nugent described James as a “blood brother” and, more emphatically, a “shit-kicker,” the conservative activist and rock star called the Republican Senate candidate before the audience.

“Ladies and gentlemen, our Constitution is under attack!” James bellowed in a T-shirt and jeans, a black cowboy hat perched atop his head. “Our Second Amendment is under attack, ladies and gentlemen,” the Iraq War veteran-turned-businessman added, to impassioned applause. “I understand what it’s like to keep Americans safe because I’ve done it before, and I’ll tell you, this is a battleground state again,” James said. “I’ll tell you,” he said, “when I get to Washington, we’re going to make our families great again, we’re going to make Michigan great again, and we’re going to make America great again!”

“He got fired up, man,” said David Farbman, CEO of Healthrise, who brought James to the show. “He looked like he had just won a frickin’ NBA championship — he was just going nuts, it was awesome.”

James may now be more reluctant to invoke the rallying cry of the Trump administration at a moment in which the president’s popularity in the swing state is flagging. But he also thinks the political landscape has transformed since 2018, giving him an opening. “This world has changed probably three or four times in 2020,” he told Jewish Insider in a recent interview. “I mean, this is not 2018 at all.”

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In many ways, this should be John James’s moment. The 39-year-old Detroit native is now mounting his second Senate bid after failing to dethrone Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) in 2018. This time around, he is trying to unseat first-term Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI) at a time when mass protests against systemic racism have brought questions about Black representation to the forefront. James, who is African American, says he is all too familiar with sentiments expressed by demonstrators who have taken to the streets since the police killing of George Floyd a month ago in Minneapolis.

“I grew up listening to NWA and Tupac and now Kendrick Lamar and Donald Glover,” James said, name-checking hip-hop artists who are far removed from any pantheon that would include Nugent in its ranks. “You listen to Sam Cooke talk about ‘change is gonna come’ — well, what kind of change? We’ve been talking about this for generations, and the politicians that we continue to send back to Lansing and Washington have done precious little to fix the situation that we find ourselves in right now as a people.”

James doesn’t go nearly so far as to advocate for defunding the police, an idea he dismisses as “‘stupid’ — that’s as plainly as I can put it.” Instead, he argues in favor of community policing along with increased accountability for law enforcement officials. “I’m looking forward to having the opportunity representing my state, taking those next steps not just to end police brutality,” he told JI, “but also to end the elements of racism that have plagued African Americans since 1619.”

But as progressive Democrats of color have found success in recent weeks — including Jamaal Bowman, Ritchie Torres and Mondaire Jones — it remains to be seen if James will be able to ride the same wave. He is competing as a member of the Republican Party and has expressed enthusiastic support for President Donald Trump, whose own re-election prospects have worsened in recent weeks. Polling suggests Trump is 11 percentage points behind presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden in the battleground state of Michigan. 

James is now trailing Peters by about 10 points, according to a recent poll, putting him in slightly better position than the president. Experts predict that Trump’s sagging numbers, should they persist into the fall, could bring down other GOP candidates. “My main impression is that the president is in significant trouble in Michigan and that will put James at a significant disadvantage,” said Thomas Ivacko, interim director of the Center for Local, State and Urban Policy at the University of Michigan.

For his part, James has demonstrated a willingness to criticize the president, even if he is somewhat cautious in his appraisals. “We need to make sure that we are staying focused and recognizing that there are issues that are facing Michiganders regardless of race, color, creed,” he said, “that affected us before [Trump] came to office and will affect us after he leaves if we don’t get our act together and put better leadership in Washington.”

In conversation with JI, he positioned himself as “an independent thinker” with a conservative bent who happens to be running as a Republican. “I’m running in the Republican Party not because the Republican Party is perfect or because they blow my skirt up,” he said. “I’m running in the Republican Party because the platform aligns most closely with my economic and moral values.”

GOP strategists believe the Republican upstart has a decent shot of pulling off an upset in November. A victory for James would be a crucial win for the Republican Party as Democrats look to flip the Senate this cycle. Norm Coleman, who chairs the Republican Jewish Coalition, said that James’s Senate bid represents one of his party’s best chances to pick up a seat in the general election and fend off a Democratic majority. 

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In 2018, James lost by just 6.5 points in the general election to the long-serving Stabenow. James, who is running unopposed in Michigan’s August 4 primary, now seems emboldened as he looks to depose Peters in November. 

“The last race, I couldn’t get my story out there. I couldn’t get people to know who I was,” James told JI. “Now, I’ll have the opportunity to share my heart, to share my plan and let other people understand how both will positively affect their lives both now and in the future — and, basically, force my opponent to make the case for why he’s been in a position to help Michiganders for 30 years as a politician — 10 years in Washington, six years in the Senate — and half the state had no clue who he was until the election year.”

James thinks his story is deserving of attention now, particularly in the Republican Party. “It’s so important to consider African Americans to make sure that we force both parties to earn our vote,” he said.

Still, as he works to get his own message out, James has occasionally stumbled. Two years ago, his first TV ad came under scrutiny for including an image of a swastika, for which he later apologized. And on Sunday, in an interview with a local news channel in Detroit, he stirred up controversy when he clumsily suggested that the political establishment was “genuflecting for working-class white males and for college-educated women and for our Jewish friends” in a comment whose broader point was that both Republicans and Democrats have long neglected the interests of Black people. 

In a statement on Sunday afternoon, Michigan Democratic Jewish Caucus chair Noah Arbit took aim at James’s comment. “At a time in which Americans are confronting the legacy of generations of racism and experiencing unprecedented levels of antisemitic rhetoric and violence, it is reprehensible and deeply offensive that James would think to describe the Republican and Democratic Parties as ‘genuflecting… to our Jewish friends.’”

Despite James’s weekend blunder, he is attuned to the legacy of antisemitism. His Michigan home was built in 1960 by a Jewish family, and the stained glass panes in his front door are believed to have been salvaged from a now-destroyed synagogue in Poland. 

The knowledge that those stained-glass panels may have come from a European synagogue has had a sobering effect on James, according to Bryce Sandler, a political consultant who works on James’s campaign. Every time James walks in and out of his house, Sandler said James has told him, the Army vet is reminded of the enemies he fought as an Apache helicopter pilot during the Iraq War. 

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The West Point graduate’s experiences as a veteran have also informed his views on foreign policy in the Middle East. He was against the Iran nuclear deal and believes that Trump made the right move by pulling out. 

“I would have opposed the Iran deal point blank,” said James, who also backed Trump’s decision to assassinate Iranian Gen. Qassim Soleimani in early January. “I, in my personal experience, have suffered at the hands and seen the suffering at the hands of an Iranian-trained militia that stoked sectarian violence in Baghdad when I was deployed in Operation Iraqi Freedom,” James said. “The Iranian regime has blood on its hands.”

“Radical extremist governments like Iran’s must not be allowed to become nuclear powers,” James elaborates in a position paper his campaign provided to JI. “Iran has a history of attacking its neighbors, kidnapping American diplomats and supporting terrorist activity. Iran has made no secret of its position calling for the destruction of Israel and spending massive resources to try to achieve that goal, at the expense of its own population. The United States and the international community have a moral imperative to thwart any such attempt by ensuring Iran does not become a nuclear power.”

Some members of Michigan’s Jewish community expressed disappointment to JI that Peters had backed the Iran deal in 2015. “There was a lot of concern in the community about that,” said Sheldon Yellen, a prominent businessman in Detroit, adding, “John has a pretty good understanding of what I think the issues are.”

In a statement to JI, C.J. Warnke, a Peters campaign spokesman, defended the senator’s record. “Gary Peters has always been a steadfast ally of the Jewish community and a strong supporter of the U.S.-Israel relationship,” Warnke said. “As the ranking member on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, Gary Peters is a leader in fighting antisemitism, of exposing the growing threats of white nationalism, and of championing increased security funding for synagogues.”

James has never been to Israel, but told JI that he has long wanted to go and plans to visit if elected to the Senate. 

“It would be an honor,” he said, “not just from a personal standpoint with respect for my Judeo-Christian roots, but also as a matter of, from a political and an economic standpoint, I think there’s a lot more that the United States and Israel can do to cooperate for the mutual benefit of both our lands.”

James endorsed Trump’s Middle East peace proposal, describing the plan as a “solid step in the right direction.” 

“But supporting a two-state solution is something that requires two willing partners,” he added. “One of the biggest barriers that we continue to see is that Israel continues to be a willing partner, but the Palestinian Authority fails to demonstrate a willingness for a peaceful two-state solution, and they’ve rejected peace proposals time after time.”

Though James supports a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he said he would defer to Israel regarding potential annexation of parts of the West Bank, which Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has indicated could occur as early as this week. 

James also expressed his support of the Taylor Force Act, which cuts off U.S. aid to the Palestinian Authority until it ceases payments to families of terrorists. 

“Only if the Palestinian Authority commits to not allowing U.S. aid to go to terrorist operations or salaries should the U.S. consider restoring aid,” he said.

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As James gears up to take on Peters ahead of the November election, he is hoping that his story will appeal to voters of all stripes. He insists that his status as a veteran and as a businessman have made him uniquely qualified for a seat in the Senate. After serving in the military, he became president of his father’s logistics and supply chain management company. 

“I believe bringing that balance, making sure that we have a seat at both tables, regardless of who’s the majority or who’s in the White House,” he said, “I believe that’s a stronger position.”

The coronavirus crisis and the killing of George Floyd have torn the “mask off the socioeconomic immobility and the racial plight experienced by, disproportionately, African Americans that have just gone unnoticed and uncared about by a majority of this nation’s population,” he told JI. “And folks were forced to look at it in the face, and I hope they hold our elected officials accountable if, for nothing else, their complicity and their failure to do anything about it over the past few decades.”

Whether his support for Trump will hobble his Senate prospects is an open question, but he is confident that this is his moment. “Better representation is very important for the state of Michigan,” James concluded, invoking a different sort of rallying cry than that of the Trump administration. “I believe it is constitutionally required, and right now, my opponent is the only thing standing between the state and not only its first Black senator, but fair representation for 100% of the state, not just the ones who agree with him.”

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