By Leonard N. Fleming | The Detroit News
(Photo: Robin Buckson, The Detroit News)
Farmington Hills businessman and military veteran John James on Tuesday won the Republican U.S. Senate primary, as President Trump loomed large in the contest to face U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow in the fall.
With 86 percent of precincts reporting, James was ahead with 55 percent of the vote to Grosse Pointe financier Sandy Pensler's 45 percent. Pensler called James to concede after 10 p.m.
James, 37, faces an uphill battle against Stabenow, the popular 66-year-old incumbent who is seeking a fourth six-year term. She holds a major cash advantage with $6.27 million in the bank as of July 18 after spending $3.2 million to reserve television air time for the last four weeks before Election Day.
James becomes the first black Republican to advance to a high-profile general election contest since William Lucas ran for governor in 1986. If James were to beat Stabenow, he'd be the second black Republican to serve in the Senate, joining Tim Scott, R-South Carolina.
Speaking to supporters at his business headquarters in Southwest Detroit, James said if the pundits count him out against Stabenow, they are in for a surprise.
"They said that Hillary Clinton could beat Bernie Sanders in Michigan. They were wrong," James said to cheers. "They said John Kasich would beat Donald Trump in Michigan. They were wrong. They said Hillary Clinton would destroy Donald Trump and some even put it in the headlines but ... they were wrong.
"And they're wrong about Debbie Stabenow. There are no unsinkable ships. There are no unwinnable wars. There are no unbeatable senators."
Richard Burr and Jonathan Oosting look at the results of the Michigan gubernatorial primary. Jonathan Oosting, Detroit News Lansing Bureau
James reported nearly $869,000 cash on hand as of July 18.
But the man the president called a "star" and "spectacular" is expected to have the strength of Trump and his White House behind him.
James received a thunderbolt of a boost to his campaign last week via Twitter when Trump endorsed him.
On Tuesday night, the president congratulated James on his victory via Twitter.
"Congratulations to a future STAR of the Republican Party, future Senator John James," he tweeted just before midnight.
"A big and bold victory tonight in the Great State of Michigan - the first of many. November can’t come fast enough!
"The retired Armed Forces Congratulations to a future STAR of the Republican Party, future Senator John James.
"A big and bold victory tonight in the Great State of Michigan - the first of many.
"November can’t come fast enough! helicopter pilot, espoused Christian, anti-abortion and gun rights views.
"He was also the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, and Right to Life of Michigan, among others."
James also made numerous appearances on the Fox News channel and got the endorsement of musician Kid Rock.
The Trump effect in the primary was palpable: The James campaign tweeted out a segment on Fox News with a female voter in Romeo who said she voted for James in part because Trump asked.
Outside his polling place in Farmington Hills Tuesday morning with his wife and two young children, James said he liked his chances to advance past the primary and that he believes he could take out Stabenow.
Pensler, 61, ran on his business acumen and said he wanted to address the falloff in Michigan’s education, more welfare reform and the need to retain programs for local military bases.
His endorsements included Republican U.S. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky and former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania.
Pensler showed up to vote with his two children Tuesday morning at Trombly Elementary School in Grosse Pointe, armed with a smile.
“We fought hard, and it’s in the hands of the voters,” Pensler said. “We’re hopeful that they’ll make the right choice. I’m reasonably confident. The hard work’s done now the nervous waiting starts.”
During the campaign, Pensler attacked James in TV and online commercials as soft on immigration because he gave political donations to Detroit City Council member Racquel Castenada-Lopez, a sanctuary city supporter.
James said he was only giving money in a nonpartisan race to a candidate who would represent the Detroit district where his family’s business is located.
James countered by criticizing Pensler for saying about Trump at a forum: “I can’t speak at fourth-grade level like he does.” Pensler defended himself by saying he was complimenting the president, noting that he added that “I wish I could. I can’t.”
The attacks helped increase the name identification of James, who didn’t spend much money early in the campaign.
Phyllis Noda, 73, of Troy, who normally votes Democrat, was so impressed by James that she switched over to the GOP primary ballot.
“I’m very impressed with his graduation from West Point and his training as a pilot, his service to our country and his concern for issues not politics and the things that matter,” Noda said. “I’ve followed his announcements ever since the beginning. I hope he makes it further.”
She said she has “a secret hope that the Republican Party will become more diverse and I don’t see enough diversity.”
John Farnum, 56, of Troy, who is a project manager for General Motors Co., said he went with Pensler, but “it was a flip of the coin and not happy with either one.”
“Neither one of them struck me as, I want to see this guy in there,” Farnum said.
One of the criticisms of James was his alignment with Trump, Farnum said. “That didn’t sit very well with me,” he said.
Although Pensler has loaned himself $5 million, the candidates have spent roughly similar amounts of money in a campaign where total spending had reached $7.31 million through July 18, according to Federal Election Commission filings. By July 18, Pensler had spent nearly $4 million, while James had spent $3.34 million.
Although Trump narrowly won Michigan in 2016, political analysts don’t consider Stabenow vulnerable compared with Democratic senators running for re-election in other states where Trump won.
James will have a tough time against Stabenow, who is popular with voters, Noda said, because she helps constituents and connects with them. Stabenow helped with Noda’s mother nursing home situation some years ago.
“Debbie has been extremely visible,” she said. “She has been a supporter of women. He’s going to have a tough fight against Debbie,” Noda said. “Even with me.”
Staff Writer James Dickson contributed.