DETROIT — John James still feels the sting from the harrowing encounters and indignities he has experienced as a young Black man crossing paths with the police.
He recently recalled the time he was with the woman who is now his wife at an upscale mall in suburban Detroit and two officers approached them in their car, guns drawn. Had his wife, who is white, not been there to de-escalate the situation, he said, “I don’t know what would have happened.”
A few years later, he was pulled over with one of their sons in the back seat. At the sight of the flashing blue and red lights, he asked himself if this was the day his child “sees his daddy bleed out in the street.” Mr. James, a West Point graduate and Apache helicopter pilot who once flew combat missions in Iraq, came to a chilling conclusion: He could be killed during a traffic stop in the suburbs just as easily as he could have been killed at war.
These are the kinds of stories that Mr. James, a Republican candidate for Senate in Michigan, said he hoped would help white Americans better understand the issues of racial justice now at the forefront of an election unlike any in his lifetime.
“I didn’t see the George Floyd video — I felt it,” said Mr. James, 39, explaining in an interview last week how watching Mr. Floyd dying under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer underscored his motivation for running. “We don’t have enough people making decisions who feel the consequences of their actions.”
The message seems ideal for this moment of racial awakening in America. But many Michigan voters aren’t drawn to Mr. James, in no small part because of what he isn’t saying.
Mr. James has refused to utter anything but the most gentle and equivocating criticism of President Trump, sticking to a playbook that he hopes will keep Michigan’s white, Trump-supporting conservatives from turning against him.
But at a time when polls show that Americans overwhelmingly mistrust Mr. Trump’s handling of race relations, Mr. James — the only Black candidate Republicans expect to have on the ballot for Senate this fall — is grappling with a complicated reality as he tries to balance his identity with his ambitions for office in Mr. Trump’s Republican Party.
His cautious approach has stirred a debate among African-American supporters and opponents alike. Hasn’t the time long passed for hedged and ambivalent responses to the president’s remarks on race? And what defines someone like Mr. James first: being Black or being a Republican?
Mr. James’s response is neither; he is an American. But other answers haven’t come so easily. He said his impulse after seeing the Floyd tape was to call his father and head to a Black Lives Matter protest. But then he decided against protesting, reasoning he could do more to help through his campaign. Recently, when he and his wife tried to explain the protests to their 5-year-old son, the boy didn’t understand. “I thought Martin Luther King fixed that,” Mr. James recalled his son as saying.
Many Black Americans say there has never been a time when the answers are so clear and the lines so bright. And Mr. Trump’s offenses against them are legion. He has defended white supremacists and the Confederate flag; spread racist content on social media; rolled back efforts to reform police departments with a history of discrimination; attacked Black athletes as dumb and unpatriotic; and initially refused to disavow an endorsement from David Duke, a former leader of the Ku Klux Klan.
“At some point, John is going to have to separate himself and demonstrate a stronger voice, an independent voice,” said Jimmy Greene, a businessman in Saginaw who has helped raise money to support Mr. James.
Mr. Greene pointed to a commercial playing on heavy rotation in Michigan in which Mr. James, who says in the ad that he will be a “unifier,” condemns the killing of Mr. Floyd as a “cowardly act of evil.” Then, in the next breath, Mr. James calls out the rioting and looting that took place during some of the protests, which were largely peaceful, as “criminal” — a talking point that Republicans have poll-tested and believe gives their candidates a more palatable way to express support for the demonstrations while also nodding to disapproving white conservatives.
Mr. Greene said it was gratuitous to draw attention to isolated instances of violence.
“That was terrible,” he said, adding that there were certain things like Mr. Floyd’s killing and Mr. Trump’s racism that couldn’t be papered over with ambiguity. “Call it what it is,” he said. “Put periods at the end of things. Don’t use semicolons and commas and parentheses and ‘buts.’”
Asked to describe Mr. James’s predicament, Republicans have used phrases like “in a bind,” “walking a tightrope” or “against a wall.”
If he were running under a Republican president who did not so openly provoke racial animus, Mr. James could have had an easier time becoming the breakout star his supporters see.
He has the commanding bearing of an Army officer and a confident stage presence honed in high school as a member of the drama club. After eight years in the Army, he earned two master’s degrees and now runs Renaissance Global Logistics, a shipping business that is part of the company his father started after moving to Michigan from segregated Mississippi in the 1960s. He made his first Senate bid two years ago, against Senator Debbie Stabenow. Though he lost by 6.5 points, it was a stronger showing than many expected.
Republican donors find him appealing. An aide to Mr. James said he had raised “well over” $6 million in the period from April through June, which would put him ahead of other Republicans in high-profile Senate races like Susan Collins, the incumbent in Maine who reported raising about half that amount. Second quarter figures won’t be finalized until the middle of this month, but in the previous two quarters Mr. James out-raised his challenger, Senator Gary Peters, a first-term Democrat who keeps a relatively low profile.
“He has a story to tell,” said Ronna McDaniel, chairwoman of the Republican National Committee and a former leader of the Michigan Republican Party, adding that Mr. James had the potential to shine against an opponent who was not a brand name in Michigan politics. “There’s a real opportunity for John to have a breakout moment.”
But Mr. James has struggled to find that moment, even now. He has held back when asked about his stance on stripping Confederate names from military bases, repeating Mr. Trump’s warnings not to “rewrite history” before allowing, “If the military wants to rename its bases, it’s fine by me.”
And asked during the interview about the president’s decision to post a video on Twitter last month that showed a supporter of his shouting “white power,” Mr. James said only that he agreed with Mr. Trump’s decision to delete the post a few hours after sharing it.
Pressed on whether Mr. Trump had been wrong to share a white supremacist chant on his Twitter feed, Mr. James declined to answer, putting his thumb and forefinger together in the shape of a zero to demonstrate how little attention he had paid to the tweets.
“We are competing against nations that think in terms of dynasties and centuries,” he said, criticizing what he called the small-mindedness of our politics. “Who’s out there laying the vision for who we want to be?”
Republicans in Michigan have proved before that they can win statewide office without widespread support from Black voters, and this appears to be the path to victory that Mr. James’s advisers envision. They did not offer a prediction when asked if he would do better than single digits among Black voters, the typical high-water mark for most Republicans in recent elections.
Mr. Trump won Michigan in 2016 by just 10,000 votes — his thinnest margin in any state. But that edge is gone today. Public polling, along with private Republican surveys of the state, show Mr. Trump has slipped far behind former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., in some cases by double digits. And while the latest internal Republican surveys show Mr. James doing slightly better than the president, Republicans familiar with the numbers said he was still behind. A June New York Times/Siena College poll had him down by 10 points.
“I think there are people who are troubled by the current numbers,” said Stu Sandler, a strategist working for Mr. James in Michigan, referring to the president’s standing. At the same time, Mr. Sandler added, “A lot of the same people who cautioned Hillary Clinton’s campaign in 2016, saying, ‘You’ve got a problem in Michigan,’ are saying today these numbers are not going to stay like this.”
Critics said that Mr. James had missed an opportunity with Black voters who might consider voting for a Republican but were turned off because he wouldn’t stand up to Mr. Trump.
“Colin Powell can have his picture next to Martin Luther King Jr., Barack Obama and John F. Kennedy in a Black household,” said Mario Morrow Sr., a political consultant in Michigan who has worked for Republican and Democratic governors. “Right now,” he added, “John James won’t get his picture there because he is not standing up.”
Mr. James said he hoped to be a kind of “cultural translator” for Black Americans in white, rural and mostly conservative communities where the meaning behind a phrase like “Black lives matter is often lost.
He explained some of the issues with the phrase “all lives matter,” which some conservatives have used as a retort. It would be similar, he said, to someone hearing that his father had died and offering condolences by saying, “Well, everybody’s parents die.”
“A response of ‘all lives matter’ would be truthful,” he said, “but it would also be hurtful and cruel in the moment.”
How often remarks like these will make their way into Mr. James’s future ads or campaign speeches is a subject of discussion in his campaign. As Michigan slowly emerges from a monthslong shutdown after being hard hit by the coronavirus, Mr. James has begun holding in-person events, with masks provided for those who don’t have them. (Mr. James himself has worn one at times.)
At one event last week at the home of one of Mr. James’s Army friends in the Detroit exurb of Clarkston, a retired state police trooper, Steve Unruh, 49, asked about a fair way to address issues with policing. “Yes, you do have bad cops,” Mr. Unruh said. “You got bad doctors, bad lawyers, bad lawn service.”
Mr. James was direct. “Your lawn service isn’t a threat to your life,” he said. “When I walked down the street, my gardener isn’t necessarily what I’m thinking about, but I’m thinking about me, and my boys’ lives, very seriously.”
“Stability, unity in leadership,” he added, would help the nation heal. “I have not seen that leadership from our current senator.”
He said nothing of the current president.