Democrat Gretchen Whitmer, the Michigan governor and possible Biden VP pick, has been in hot water for months with her continuing restrictions on state commerce during the coronavirus pandemic. With her recent threats to press rewind on the state’s economy, Michigan Republicans have an opportunity to paint her and her allies as authoritarian while advocating for a freer economy, just in time for the 2020 election. And they already have an ideal flagbearer to lead that charge: Senate candidate John James.
If James can take up the cause of an open Michigan, he might be able to use it to connect with voters in the state. He’s already got a lot going for his prospects in other respects: he ran for Michigan’s other Senate seat just two years ago, building name recognition with voters, and finished unexpectedly strong, only 7 points behind long-time incumbent Sen. Debbie Stabenow. This year, he’s up against freshman Democrat Gary Peters, who’s kept a relatively low profile in his first term and who’s landed on Roll Call’s list of the 10 most vulnerable senators for being in a state Trump carried in 2016. The list also notes that James has continually beaten Peters in quarterly fundraising numbers.
James is an easy choice for Michigan’s conservatives. As a combat veteran with private-sector leadership experience, he checks a lot of boxes for Republicans. But in a swing state like Michigan — where more folks generally identify as independents than as either Republicans or Democrats and 17 percent of the state’s voters haven’t decided yet who they’ll cast their ballot for in the Senate race — he’ll need to win over a majority of independent voters to close the polling gap between him and Peters.
Appealing to more Trump-weary moderates could be an effective strategy, as the data suggests that Michiganders who gave the president a surprise victory in 2016 may be casting their hopes on Biden instead this year. And James has done just that, making a name for himself as a rare Republican unafraid to criticize and disagree with Trump.
He’s also discussed racial politics far more than the average Republican candidate, even going so far as to claim that “Donald Trump doesn’t need less Black folks around him, he needs more.” For independents frustrated by Republican silence on racial tensions — both before and especially during the recent upheaval — James’ willingness to speak out on the topic could prove just the push those voters need to land on his side of the fence.
All of this positions James well to assume the role of GOP emissary this year. But if James is able to present his party as the smarter alternative to the left’s authoritarianism, it could be the nail in the Democrats’ 2020 coffin. So far, his campaign has been restrained on the issue, calling out Whitmer and Peters only once each on issues related to the coronavirus.
While Whitmer maintains the unusually high coronavirus approval numbers enjoyed by nearly every governor across the nation, this restraint is probably prudent — but the further she slips, the sharper the contrast James should create between himself and the state’s Democrats. And if James can pair this contrast with his emphasis on “compassionate conservatism” — combining an analytical concern for the economic effects from the pandemic with a more humane approach to the people behind the numbers — that balanced toolkit could be what he needs to propel him past Peters.
With James, Republicans are primed for a 2020 win in Michigan. If he uses this unique political moment to his advantage, he could ride that momentum all the way to Capitol Hill.
Brian Ericson is a Nashville-based editor. His writing has been featured in the Washington Examiner, the Foundation for Economic Education, Free the People, Townhall, The Tennessean, and Spiked magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @brianscott67.