Republican businessman John James of Michigan announced Thursday that he will challenge first-term Democratic U.S. Sen. Gary Peters in 2020 in a key state for President Donald Trump's re-election chances.
James, a 37-year-old African American combat veteran and CEO of an automotive logistics company in Detroit, lost to longtime Sen. Debbie Stabenow last year . But he did better than expected, considering he was a political unknown initially and the race was never prioritized as a battleground by the national GOP in what was a successful year for Michigan Democrats.
"There's so much work to be done to heal our nation and to unify our state. I just want to help people," James told The Associated Press in a phone interview. He called himself a "compassionate conservative, a conscientious capitalist" who "has better ideas, has more energy and has a greater ability to bring us together than what we're seeing out of Washington."
James said he chose to file on the 75th anniversary of the D-Day invasion that helped change the course of World War II because it is a reminder of what Americans can do when they put their differences aside.
He committed to donating a nickel from every campaign dollar he raises to charitable causes. The West Point graduate and Iraq War helicopter pilot said he got the idea from what is known in the military as the "nickel ride," in which first-time pilots give a nickel from the year they were born to their flight instructors.
"It's the right thing to do," James said. "I've always been taught that we have to use our blessings to be a blessing to others. When you take a look at how much money is going to be spent in this 2020 election cycle, I personally feel like someone should stand up and say that we can both raise enough money to win and have enough to give to people who are need."
Peters, 60, won election to an open seat in 2014 after serving three terms in the House. He previously was a state senator and lottery commissioner, served in the Navy Reserve and worked as an investment adviser.
He is one of two Democratic incumbents up for re-election in a state won by Trump, who has called James a "star" and considered nominating him as the next U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
Peters' campaign manager circulated a memo this week pointing to the "battle-tested" senator's tough victories across four very different election cycles and his strong fundraising. Dan Farough also criticized James for standing by Trump's agenda "2,000%" and questioned his positions on health care and abortion.
"Gary has proven himself to be the kind of public servant who doesn't waste time grandstanding and instead focuses on getting the job done," Farough wrote, citing Peters' work on health coverage, prescription drugs, skills training, college affordability and the Great Lakes. The Peters campaign had $3 million as of March 31.
James secured Trump's endorsement over a self-funding millionaire in the 2018 GOP primary, advancing to face Stabenow and losing by 6.5 percentage points. She had won past elections by much more in a state where Democrats have long carried Senate races. While James faced criticism as a Trump cheerleader , he never was bloodied with a negative, multimillion-dollar barrage of TV ads — which could change in 2020.
"I can agree with the president without worshipping him, and I can disagree with him without attacking him," James said. "I'm going to run on my own record of accomplishment. This race is about Michigan."
House Republicans were hoping he would run for a suburban Detroit seat in 2020. James said he decided on a Senate run because, if he believes he could have the most positive impact statewide as a senator.