Art of the political comeback?

Speaking before supporters on the evening of Nov. 6, 2018, John E. James, with a crisp suit-no-tie look and standing beside his wife and son, told the audience assembled, “Anybody can give glory to God when the times are good, but we’re still supposed to glorify him in defeat because He has a bigger plan than we can understand … And I promise I’m not going anywhere … This is just the beginning.” James had just lost his Senate bid to incumbent Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) by six-and-a-half percentage points in what was then his first run for elected office.

His 2020 concession speech was much less elaborate. He had traded his suit jacket for a black golf shirt and uploaded via smartphone a shelf-shot two-minute video touching on election security and the number of dollars spent on the race before congratulating Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.) on his victory and promising to send him a bottle of Johnnie Walker scotch whiskey. It was shot at home; there were no cheering supporters, but a photograph of his family occupied the background of the shot. Again, though, there was mention of God and hints that James might still have another run for office ahead.

Then, last week, after two consecutive defeats, James secured the Republican nomination in the race for Michigan’s tenth congressional district, defeating his opponent, Tony Marcinkewciz, handedly. In doing so, James finally made good on his nearly four-year-old promise that “This [was] just the beginning.” His Aug. 2 victory thus represented a remarkable show of tenacity for the Iraq War veteran and businessman, as well as the persistent faith that many in the Republican Party had placed in him. (James, to this point, had notably secured the endorsement of former President Donald Trump in March.)

Although we will have to wait until November to see if James’ political comeback will be complete, given the district’s Republican tilt, it is likely James will finally experience his much sought after electoral victory. But perhaps, more fundamentally, James’ recent ups and downs invites a much-debated question about electoral politics more broadly: How often can one successfully make a comeback, and what sort of personal fortitude is required to embark on a campaign once again after suffering what often amounts to both a very personal and public rejection?

One thinks of the many stories of the emotional toll that losing an election takes — from Richard Nixon’s 1962 infamous press conference and ensuing “Wilderness Years” to the distress Hubert Humphrey experienced after losing the 1968 presidential election to the reascendant Nixon. Nixon aide Dwight Chapin has recounted, though, how President-elect Nixon was remarkably magnanimous following his victory over Humphrey, having himself known all too well “how it feels to lose a close one.” As Chapin describes, “The men had their arms around one another. Humphrey was sobbing. Nixon was patting him on the back saying, ‘Hubert, everything’s going to be okay…’” And Sen. Bob Dole, in the foreword to his 1999 book “Great Political Wit: Laughing (Almost) All the Way to the White House,” referenced the tendency for defeated candidates reflexively to head off on vacation or retreat into seclusion, something Humphrey himself alluded to in a telephone call with President Lyndon Johnson after votes were tallied when he expressed his desire to head down to Caneel Bay.

As such, those like James, former Vice President Mike Pence (who lost two congressional campaigns before finally winning one a decade later), or former President George H.W. Bush, who was defeated in a 1964 Senate race before being elected to the House of Representatives two years later, deserve considerable credit for their tenacity. One also thinks of Rep. Dwight Evans (D-Pa.) who defied his characterization in a 2011 Philadelphia Inquirer article titled “Dwight or wrong: The rise and fall (?) of Dwight Evans,” which was published in the wake of his losing his chairmanship of the House Appropriations Committee in the Pennsylvania state legislature. Evans would be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives five years later. (He would joke about that article when I interviewed him in 2019, invoking the rapper LL Cool J, “Don’t call it a comeback.”)

James is not the only candidate in the 2022 midterm cycle seeking another chance after having previously fallen short. There is also Allan Fung running in Rhode Island’s second congressional district and looking to redeem himself after losing two consecutive Rhode Island gubernatorial races; Paul LePage is trading his post-gubernatorial job as a bartender for an effort to reclaim The Blaine House; and then, of course, there is Sarah Palin. And though this year, former Sens. David Perdue and Dean Heller, as well as former Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens, have all fallen short in their bids for a comeback, one cannot help but think that sometimes — even in politics — the maxim “Never bet against the guy who just keeps showing up” holds true.

Erich J. Prince co-founded and runs Merion West (@merionwest), a Philadelphia-based group promoting civil discourse in the age of polarization; he also writes a weekly column at MediaVillage on how the news media covers politics. He previously served as a communications strategist for former North Carolina governor Pat McCrory.

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