Nowhere on anyone’s handicapping lists of tossup Senate races will you find Michigan. And nowhere on the roster of A-list Republican challengers would you have found John James.
Until last week. With two tweets and his caps lock on, President Trump endorsed Mr. James in the Michigan Republican primary — “SPECTACULAR!” — giving the underdog campaign a jolt just before voters head to the polls on Tuesday.
…John is strong on crime and borders, loves our Military, our Vets and our Second Amendment. He will be a star. He has my full and total Endorsement!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 27, 2018
Now Mr. James hopes he will get the chance to pull off in the general election what he has done in the primary: turn a lopsided race into a very close contest.
It will be difficult — assuming he even makes it out of the primary. His opponent, Sandy Pensler, has been campaigning with the confidence of a front-runner. Mr. Pensler has more money and boasts credentials that include running his own private equity firm and teaching economics at Harvard and Yale.
Come November, the Republican nominee will have to face Senator Debbie Stabenow, a two-term incumbent who won her last re-election by 20 points.
But Mr. James, 37, is a standout. He is a West Point graduate who spent eight years in the Army, including service in Iraq. He is the president of his family-run business, a global provider of logistics support for Fortune 500 companies. He is also black, a rarity in his party today. The Senate has only one black Republican, Tim Scott of South Carolina.
Mr. James, who now lives not far from where he grew up in the Detroit suburbs, says he doesn’t have “a black message, or a white message.” But there is little doubt he would be at a disadvantage competing in Detroit, Michigan’s largest city where the population is 80 percent black. Hillary Clinton carried most precincts in the city with more than 90 percent of the vote.
He talked to The New York Times about his chances of putting another crack in what was once reliably the Democrats’ “blue wall” of Midwestern states that had been a bulwark for the party in presidential elections until Mr. Trump came along.
The following is an edited and condensed version of the conversation.
I grew up not far from you. What high school did you go to?
Shut up! So did I. What class were you in? (Long pause.) Hello?
Maybe I took that too literally. I graduated 1999.
I graduated in 1998.
How random is this?
(After reminiscing about English teachers, siblings that might know each other and drama class, the conversation moved on to politics.)
Donald Trump came to Michigan in 2016 and asked black voters to support him, saying “What the hell do you have to lose?” His reasoning was that decades of Democratic power in cities like Detroit left them with failing schools, high poverty and rampant crime. Is that the right pitch for Republicans to be making?
I actually went to the NAACP dinner this past spring, and I was pulled aside on two occasions that stick out to me. One lady said that she’d been a resident of Detroit for 45 years and feels neglected by the Democratic Party. Another lady pulled me aside and said that’s she’s never split a ticket in her entire life, and she’s finally looking forward to having a conservative to vote for. And I took that to kind of instruct me.
I was raised by people who, like my father, came out of the Jim Crow South because Michigan was the place that people immigrated to from all over the world to have economic opportunity. And now after marching from Selma to Detroit and rebelling from Watts to Baltimore, people don’t feel like anything has gotten better after 50 years. There’s still trees growing through houses and wild dogs running through the streets in black neighborhoods. And Debbie Stabenow keeps getting re-elected.
Have you spoken directly to the president?
I have not. I imagine he’s a pretty busy guy. But his endorsement did mean a lot.
Especially in a Republican primary. It can make or break races. I wonder, though, in the general election, are you going to want to broadcast that to voters, especially voters in Detroit?
I think that those who would prejudge me based on an affiliation are doing themselves a disservice. I believe that through our political process we have an opportunity for people to open their ears, their minds and their hearts to listen. I believe that I can be, should be and will be judged by the competence, credibility and character that I have and that I’m bringing to the race.
And there are going to be some people who are so blinded by their hatred of the president that they’ll miss the opportunity to have someone who will do everything he can to serve everyone in the state of Michigan. I’m looking forward to treating people like independent thinkers.
But would you want him to campaign for you in the general election?
Absolutely. In Michigan, it may not be very clear out on the coast to a lot of folks …
Come on, you can’t say that to me. I grew up there.
I said a lot of people. I didn’t say you. There’s a massive disconnect. People here in Michigan feel disenfranchised and disillusioned with the situations that are going on the coasts.
I actually heard on the trail somebody say Donald Trump is Rust Belt Robin Hood. And I took that to mean that we finally have a president that’s listening to the people in the Midwest.
Rust Belt Robin Hood? I hadn’t heard that one before.
The reason why he won in Michigan, despite what everybody said, is because people went to the polls in a secret ballot and voted for someone who they believed would take care of their personal economy, would help their economy grow, would help their job.
We were told that manufacturing was dead. That 2 percent G.D.P. growth was the new normal. And President Trump said no way. We can do better.
Is the “blue wall” permanently cracked? How do you prevent President Trump’s election from being a fluke?
Michigan voters have the opportunity to basically answer the question. We keep sending lawyers and career politicians to Washington and we wonder why we’re not get anything done.
People want somebody who understands how to run a business before they make regulations that will affect business. They want somebody who understands what it’s like to sign the front and the back of the check.
Read more about Tuesday’s voting
Voters in Kansas, Michigan, Missouri, Ohio and Washington State are heading to the polls on Aug. 7.