LANSING, Mich. (AP) — Michigan Republicans’ uphill bid to grab hold of a U.S. Senate seat for just the second time in 40 years starts with an increasingly testy primary between two Detroit-area businessmen who are trading barbs over Donald Trump and their own business records.
The winner of the Aug. 7 contest, John James or Sandy Pensler, will advance to face third-term Sen. Debbie Stabenow. She has fended off past challengers with ease, but Trump’s narrow 2016 victory in the state — the first for a GOP presidential nominee in more than a quarter-century — is seen as an opening.
James got a big boost Friday by getting Trump’s endorsement. The president tweeted that James is a “spectacular” candidate “with such great potential.”
Unlike the Republican nominees who faced Stabenow in her 2012 and 2006 re-elections, this year’s candidates have little if any political experience. This is James’ first campaign for office, while Pensler unsuccessfully ran for the U.S. House years ago.
The Ivy League-educated Pensler, 61, of Grosse Pointe, is emphasizing his experience in the business world, where he advised large corporations on restructuring and later founded a buyout firm that owns and operates The Korex Cos., which manufactures detergents and cleaners at factories in Michigan, Illinois and Canada.
“I understand what incentives drive the economy — what leads to growth in jobs, what leads to business decisions to move plants,” he said. “How you turn around a business is just like what you need to turn around a government that is bloated.”
Pensler, whose pledge to put “Michigan first” echoes Trump’s “America First” trade policy, said it is not just a campaign mantra used in his TV ads but something he would take to Washington.
“Every time I vote, it would be, ‘Is this good for Michigan?'” he said.
James, 37, of Farmington Hills, is highlighting his business credentials and military service. The West Point graduate flew Apache helicopters in combat and led two platoons during the Iraq War. After being honorably discharged, he joined his father’s Detroit-based group of companies: James Group International Inc. He is CEO of Renaissance Global Logistics, which ships supplier parts to auto factories around the world.
James said he is campaigning with a “true conservative message — God and country, faith and family, service before self, fiscal conservatism.” He said he is no “generic Republican” and, as a young African-American, can help the GOP “broaden the back of the elephant” to win over minorities and millennials.
If he wins the primary, he would be Michigan’s first black Republican nominee for a major statewide office in more than three decades. But he said he wants to be assessed on “my character and not anything else.”
When Pensler entered the race, he had the financial advantage after loaning his campaign $5 million. But James — who gave his campaign $50,000 — has made up ground, raising $3.9 million as of the end of June while securing endorsements from Right to Life, the Michigan Chamber of Commerce and the Senate Conservatives Fund. He had $1.3 million cash on hand to Pensler’s $2.3 million, while Stabenow — who faces no primary challenger — had $9.6 million in the bank.
Both GOP candidates are attacking each other’s conservative credentials.
James criticizes Pensler for not liking Trump’s “style” and for once saying he, Pensler, cannot speak at a “fourth-grade level” like Trump. Pensler said the remarks were taken out of context and he was defending the president and complimenting his simple, succinct way of communicating.
James also doubts the “liberal” Pensler’s anti-abortion stance, noting that he was an abortion rights proponent when he sought a congressional seat in 1992. Pensler has said his position evolved since his children were born.
He in turn criticizes James’ donation to the campaign of a “leftist” Detroit councilwoman who supports so-called sanctuary cities. James said he wants to defund communities that do not support federal immigration enforcement, and that Pensler is “attributing other people’s actions to me.”
Most recently, James and a super PAC backing him have brought attention to what they contend would make Pensler unelectable against Stabenow: some of his private-equity firm’s failed turnaround attempts, resulting in three bankruptcies, outsourcing and job losses. James criticized Pensler for seeking a $3 million federal bailout loan for Denman Tire Corp., which he bought in 1996 and which ultimately filed for bankruptcy in 2010.
“We don’t need somebody who has that history, that so-called experience,” he said during a radio debate, accusing Pensler of “forcing working-class and middle-class families out into the street” and “running a 90-year-old company into the ground.”
Pensler counters that every company he bought had been scheduled for closure or liquidation.
“I buy troubled companies,” he said. “I have successes and failures. … Most of them have been successful. All, every single one, lasted longer than they would have lasted if I had not been involved.”
He notes that one James family company went bankrupt in 2000 before later being purchased by the family. He said that unlike James, who joined his dad’s business, “I built a business from the ground up. … We just bring a different level of experience and insight to the economy and to businesses.”