Why a Black Republican in Michigan could be key for the party to stay in control of the Senate

With Democrats hoping to take control of the U.S. Senate, John James, a Black Republican businessman and war veteran from Michigan with no political experience could be key to thwarting those plans.

John James hoping to unseat Democratic Sen. Gary Peters

Republican U.S. Senate candidate John James speaks after dropping off his ballot in Farmington Hills, Mich. on Monday, is viewed as one of the possible Senate contenders who could steal a seat away from a Democratic incumbent. (Paul Sancya/The Associated Press)

With Democrats hoping to take control of the U.S. Senate, John James, a Black Republican businessman and war veteran with no political experience could be key to thwarting those plans.

James is running in Michigan in the hopes of unseating Democratic Sen. Gary Peters; recent polls have shown Peters leading James in the Michigan Senate race. But James, a 39-year-old West Point graduate considered a rising star in the Republican party, is making this contest competitive in what was initially thought to be a safe seat for the Democrats.

Currently, the U.S. Senate has 53 Republicans and 47 Democrats. There are 35 Senate seats up for grabs in this election.

"I think there's huge focus from the Republicans and the Democrats on this race," said David Dulio, a political science professor at Oakland University in Rochester, Mich.

"Republicans in D.C., they really hope James comes through because they probably see the writing on the wall in some other states."

One of the better opportunities for GOP

This is not James's first crack at a Senate seat. In 2018, he ran against Debbie Stabenow. While he lost by 6.5 points, his showing was considered strong and he lost in a year that saw a blue wave of Democratic wins wash over the state.

He was also at a disadvantage moneywise, with the national Republican party mostly abandoning him near the end, Dulio said. This time, however, James is flush with money, on par with his Democratic rival.

Democratic Sen. Gary Peters speaks during an event for Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden at Michigan State Fairgrounds in Novi, Mich., on Oct. 16. The Peters campaign has accused James of being a Trump acolyte. (Carolyn Kaster/The Associated Press)

An Oct. 27 Reuters/Ipsos poll found 50 per cent of likely voters in Michigan backed Peters, while 44 per cent supported James.

Michael Traugott, professor emeritus at the University of Michigan's Center for Political Studies, said the Michigan battle is "one of the better opportunities" for a Republican to upset a Democratic incumbent in the Senate.

"He is a more experienced candidate," he said. "Well supported by people in and out of the state of Michigan financially. He ran a good campaign."

WATCH | Trump endorses John James:

Donald Trump endorses U.S. Senate candidate John James at rally


4 months ago
At a rally in Muskeg, Mich., on Oct. 17, 2020, Donald Trump called Republican Senate candidate John James 'outstanding' while critiquing the work of his Democrat opponent, Gary Peters. 0:45

James, who flew Apache helicopters in Iraq and is president of his family's company providing supply chain management services, has a solid reputation in his home town of Farmington Hills, Mich., 40 kilometres outside of Detroit.

"He's a fantastic man. I quite frankly would trust him with my life," said David Patow, a 60-year-old computer programmer who has known James for years. The pair have worked together on church projects.

"He's absolutely trustworthy and loyal and all those good boy scout virtues."

Farmington Hills, Mich., resident David Patow said he would trust James with his life. (Mark Gollom/CBC)

James is also the only Black Senate candidate for the Republicans, would be the first Black Senator from Michigan and, if elected, the second Black Republican Senator in the upper chamber, along with Tim Scott from South Carolina. 

"He's young, he's charismatic, he's engaging when he speaks," Dulio said.

Some of those traits were on display at an event earlier this month at the Holland Civic Center in the western Michigan city of Holland. Speaking to about a crowd of a 100, James sounded more preacher than politician, delivering a sermon that at times mixed politics and religion.

The Republican Party, he said, was founded on the ideals of self determination, individual freedom, "based upon an understanding of why we are here and what we can do with our time on this Earth, based upon the teachings of whom I believed died to save my soul," he said.

WATCH | What Michigan's voters want:

The key issues for Michigan voters this election

CBC News Windsor

4 months ago
WDET News Director Jerome Vaughn talks about the mood in Michigan ahead of the November 3 election. 9:10

James also stressed that the "government for too many people, has become our God. Where we look to solve all of our problems.

"Do you understand who you are? Woven into our DNA is exactly what's needed to fix this land."

But the candidate also suggested that both Republicans and Democrats are responsible for some of the problem in the United States. 

'Both parties have failed'

"I come to you proposing non partisanship," James told the crowd. "I come to you to propose that both parties have failed the American people. The establishment of both parties have left us behind."

A Reuters/Ipsos poll released this week showed 50 per cent of likely voters in Michigan backed Peters, while 44 per cent supported James. (Mark Gollom/CBC)

Indeed, some of his popularity has been based on his decision to run as an outsider, Dulio said.

"That still works. A lot of Americans respond to that," he said. "This wouldn't be the first time that somebody has run for Congress, campaigning against Congress."

His campaign believes Peters is vulnerable, has low name recognition, and has attempted to define him as someone who has been ineffectual as a senator, Dulio said.

Peters  has rejected that tag, saying during a recent rally in Traverse City, Mich., that he was ranked "as one of the most effective United State Senators in getting things done and also ranked as one of the most bipartisan," according to northern Michigan's 9&10 News.

WATCH | Campaigns zero in on battlegrounds in campaign's final week:

Biden, Trump amp up campaigns a week before U.S. election

The National

4 months ago
One week before the U.S. presidential election, both candidates were amping up their campaign. Barack Obama campaigned for Joe Biden in Florida while President Donald Trump attended three rallies to try to regain support he’s lost. 2:01

His campaign has countered with statements James has made in the past — particularly about Obamacare, which he has said he wants to repeal and replace.

And they have tried to portray James, who once said he supported the president "2,000 per cent," as just another Trump acolyte.

But James has hit back that he owes allegiance to no one.

"Listen Sen. Peters, you're not running against ... President Donald Trump or any other Bogeyman. "You're running against me," he said in one campaign video.

"And this may surprise you senator, but no one owns me."

Meanwhile, in the wake of civil unrest and protests following the shootings of Blacks by white police officers, James has been open about race issues and his own experience with law enforcement.

"I understand what it feels like to have guns drawn on you because someone perceives you as a threat as you're parked in your car in a parking lot," he said last month at a Trump rally. "I understand what it feels like to be pulled over in a nice area of Detroit with my son in the back, and wondering if this is the day my son is going to see me bleed out in the street."

Too silent on Trump?

But some have raised questions about whether James has been too silent with regards to Trump, who has been accused of racism, and of emboldening and refusing to condemn white supremacists. 

Still, James, who grew up in Detroit, could bring in more Black voters who otherwise might not vote for another Republican candidate, Dulio said.

Marvin Wiggins, a resident of Saginaw, Mich., and Vietnam veteran, said he won't be supporting James. The candidate is a 'sellout,' he said. (Mark Gollom/CBC)

However, Marvin Wiggins, a Saginaw resident who is Black and a Vietnam veteran, said he's not impressed with James.

"To me, John James is a sellout. He has money, a lot of Blacks in his community don't have money. They're struggling, they're poor, He forgot where he came from," said the 67-year-old former radio broadcaster.

"I'm glad  people have done things to help him get to where's he's at. He's not giving  back. I don't like that."


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About the Author

Mark Gollom


Mark Gollom is a Toronto-based reporter with CBC News. He covers Canadian and U.S. politics and current affairs.

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