Politics

Feature: What I Saw at a John James Campaign Rally

Republican James faces incumbent Democrat Stabenow

John James
John James / Getty Images

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich.—It's zero hour for the John James campaign, and about 3,000 Michiganders assembled at a Monday night rally to throw their final energies behind Michigan's Republican nominee for Senate. Vice President Mike Pence also took the stage, carrying on the Trump administration's support for the underdog candidate.

With only a week until Election Day, the businessman and former Army helicopter pilot still trails his opponent, incumbent Democrat Debbie Stabenow, as he has for the entire campaign. But in the past few days, he has closed the polling gap from nearly 20 points to just 7. A Republican win—which once seemed impossible—has crept nearer into the realm of reason.

Much of the sudden strength of James's candidacy rests on his abilities as a speaker, and Monday's rally is no exception.

"It's so good to see people who understand what I mean when I say that we're going to build that wall on our southern border—and make Ohio pay for it!" he jokes as he steps up to the microphone. "That's right. We gotta keep the Buckeyes out."

While the crowd laughs—and the heavy scent of funnel cake oil settles over the room—James launches into his stump speech. It's pretty simple. God, then country. He tells his story: a West Point graduate and Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran turned successful businessman in Detroit. At one point, he even shouts, "I am living the American dream!"

And James's politics: distinctly popular. He frequently appeals to his audience with references to the Constitution and upholding the rule of law.

"We do not only have the right to elect our leaders, we also have the right and responsibility to be our leaders," he says. "But we have forgotten how to govern ourselves in Washington. We have replaced rights and responsibilities with rules and regulations. And that needs to stop."

When James rails against the intrigues of political insiders, a man in the back shouts, "Thank you!" When James says, "I will give my life for the American dream and for our freedoms," the crowd begins a frenzied shout of "USA! USA! USA!"

James grins.

"Freedom. That's the sound of freedom," he says.

But James's rhetorical abilities shine most when one of the floodlights overhead catches on fire. He's in the middle of castigating Stabenow for her long-time neglect of the Soo Locks in Sault Sainte Marie on the Canadian border, when black smoke begins billowing out of the fixture. The security crew kills all the lights—throwing the room into semi-darkness.

"I think it's the Russians," James half-whispers into the microphone.

The crowd laughs. The lights flash back on. But now burning pieces of plastic are falling to the floor. The crowd clears a space. Security kills the lights again. Now only a small flame is visible overhead. The crowd murmurs restlessly.

"You guys might not know this, but Army Rangers are more effective in the dark," James says.

Security personnel clear the floor to bring out a ladder and fire extinguishers.

"The roof, the roof, the roof is on fire," James chants slowly from the podium. Some people in the crowd join in.

When security extinguishes the fire, James cuts his own speech short to introduce Pence, who doubles down on the support President Donald Trump has given James since July. Trump has repeatedly praised the candidate for his strong stances on border protection, military expansion, and Second Amendment protection.

Now Pence does the same.

"With John James in the Senate, we'll secure our borders, we'll build the wall, and we'll fix broken immigration once and for all." he says. "Right now, it seems like a choice between results and resistance. And we need Michigan to vote for results."

But for Trump and Pence, a James win is most important because it would signal that Michigan's 2016 redward turn (its first in 30 years) was lasting. And on Monday, Pence tells the crowd it is essential that Michigan votes for James with the same fervor that elected Trump:

"We made history in Michigan and we're going to make history again in 2018," he says.