Senate Republicans are largely on the defensive this cycle. With several Republican incumbents trailing in both fundraising and in polling, a Senate race in the Great Lake State has presented them with a rare offensive opportunity.
In Michigan, first-term Democratic Sen. Gary Peters is running for a second term. He was first elected in the 2014 midterm elections. A former Lieutenant Commander in the U.S. Navy, Peters’ career in Michigan politics goes all the way back to 1994, when he was elected to the Michigan State Senate. His first statewide campaign was for Michigan Attorney General in 2002, but he came up short in the general election against Republican Mike Cox. Following his loss, Gov. Jennifer Granholm appointed Peters to serve as Commissioner of the Michigan Lottery. He then decided to run for Congress in the 2008 election, challenging Republican Rep. Joe Knollenberg in the Oakland-based 9th District. He defeated Knollenberg by a 10-point margin and became the first Democrat to ever represent this district since it was created.
In the 2010 midterm elections, Peters was challenged by Republican Andrew “Rocky” Raczkowski, a former state representative. Peters narrowly held onto the seat as Republicans romped to control of the U.S. House of Representatives, making a net gain of 63 seats. In 2012, Michigan lost one congressional seat after declining population was reflected in the decennial census. This led to Peters’ district being significantly altered. As a result of this, Peters decided to run for the redrawn 14th District, which includes eastern Detroit and a suburban town called Pontiac. The district is 58% African-American. While Peters decided to run here, he did not have the field all to himself. Fellow Democratic Rep. Hansen Clarke, who represented the 13th District, also decided to seek the new 14th District. Peters won the primary with 47% of the vote to Clarke’s 35%. In this solidly Democratic district, the winner of the primary was expected to easily win the general election. Peters became the first white man to represent Detroit in Congress in 20 years.
In the 2014 election, longtime Democratic Sen. Carl Levin opted to retire rather than seek a seventh six-year term. Peters entered the race for this open seat and cleared the field of any primary challengers by earning endorsements from high-profile Democrats in the state like Sen. Debbie Stabenow, Rep. Dan Kildee, former Gov. Jennifer Granholm and even Levin himself. Former Michigan Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land ran for the Republican nomination and also did not have any primary competition. While the race was expected to be one of the most competitive in the country, Land made several gaffes on the campaign trail and hid from the public and the media in the months leading up to the election. Peters sailed to a 55%-41% victory, even as Republicans were gaining 9 seats in the U.S. Senate and taking the majority for the first time in 8 years. He held the distinction of being the only Democrat in the 2014 Senate freshman class.
This year he is running for a second term in the Senate. He has kept a low profile since being elected to the Senate and national Republicans believe that they can capitalize on this. A recent Michigan poll found that 21% of respondents were unable to give a favorable or unfavorable opinion of him. The National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC), which works to elect Republicans to the Senate, has aired ads referring to him as “Jerry Peters.”
Republicans have high hopes for John James, a former Army Captain and Iraq War veteran. James challenged Sen. Debbie Stabenow in the 2018 midterm elections but fell short by about 7 percentage points. He had reportedly mulled challenging freshman Democratic Rep. Haley Stevens in Michigan’s 11th District, but ultimately decided to run for U.S. Senate again instead. Peters is one of just two Democratic Senators running for re-election in states that President Trump carried in 2016 (the other is Doug Jones in Alabama), so naturally, Republicans view this race as an offensive target.
James has outraised Peters in several quarters, and polling here has started to tighten, both publicly and internally. People were surprised by a recent NYT/Siena College poll, which had Peters in James in a dead heat, 43% to James’ 42%, with 15% of voters undecided. Another poll from CBS/YouGov found Peters and James separated by 3 points, with Peters at 47% and James at 44% with 9% undecided. Outside spending has also ramped up in recent days. The Schumer-aligned Senate Majority PAC recently dropped over $3.7 million in the Great Lake State. Meanwhile, the McConnell-aligned Senate Leadership Fund recently invested nearly $4 million in the race.
So how is this race playing out from a Michigan voter’s perspective? Jon Prevo, a political science student at the University of Michigan, reminds us that Michigan has straight-ticket voting this year. He says that James’ path to victory requires keeping Peters’ margins down in suburban Oakland County and hoping that a lot of rural Trump supporters vote straight-ticket Republican. For Peters to win, Prevo says that he needs to bank on huge turnout in metro Detroit, as well as hoping that white liberals in Washtenaw and Oakland are energized to vote. He also believes that Peters is struggling to break away from James because of his anonymity, saying that he’d likely be in a better position if more voters were familiar with him and what he has done since being in the Senate.
In a state that will very likely flip to Biden by a decent margin, most analysts tend to believe that Peters is the slight favorite. Forecasters at both Sabato’s Crystal Ball and the Cook Political Report currently rate the race as “Leans Democratic.” Peters has been a low-profile Senator and James has raised decent amounts of money. In fact, he enters the final weeks of the campaign with a decent cash on hand advantage. But the undecided voters in most of the polls we’ve seen lately tend to skew Democratic: the NYT poll that found a close race also found that most of the undecided voters were non-white.
Both candidates have their advantages and disadvantages. Peters has the national environment on his side, but has long struggled with his name recognition. James has the advantage in both fundraising and outside spending but must find a way to pull off a victory after falling short two years ago. This race is definitely shaping up to be more interesting than many observers originally thought. Being one of only two Republican offensive opportunities, this is a race that we should all keep our eye on as the election nears.