The Looming Battle For Michigan's Senate Seat

Jan 6, 2020

Another version of this story previously aired on Weekend Edition Saturday.

When Donald Trump won the state of Michigan in 2016, he did it by a narrow margin of just over 11,000 votes. The President’s victory in 2020 depends on voters in a coalition of battleground states, like Michigan, voting for him again.

While the top of the ticket race may be the marquee for politicos, it’s not the only one. The reelection effort for Michigan’s junior Democratic Senator, Gary Peters, will be hard fought between Democrats, who need the seat to maintain their foothold in the Senate, and Republicans, who place Peters at the top of their “endangered” list.

Peters, who was elected in 2015, is one of two Democratic Senators up for reelection in a state that Trump won in 2016. The other is Alabama Senator Doug Jones.

Republicans are hopeful their likely nominee, John James—the charismatic, African-American entrepreneur with his cachet of Presidential endorsements via Tweet and strong fundraising will be able to oust Peters, Michigan’s white junior Senator.

At the December Trump rally in Battle Creek, Michigan, Vice President Pence made sure to mention the GOP’s likely Senate candidate, “We’ll send John James to the Senate and we’ll reelect Donald Trump for four more years,” he bellowed to the ginned-up crowd.

The prospect of four more years, was met by roaring applause.

James had taken the stage earlier in the evening, pitching himself to the rally-goers as a moderate, more traditional conservative.

“I’m a compassionate conservative. I’m a conscientious entrepreneur who believes that we can decide how to use and spend our money in my family and your family and in our communities. We believe that we are the best ones to figure out how to determine our futures, not the federal government,” said James.

He’s a wealthy-businessman from Detroit, who runs the family global supply chain company after graduating from West Point and serving as an Army pilot in the Iraq war. 

2020 is a reprisal for James. He lost in his 2018 bid for the senate against Michigan’s senior Democratic Senator Debbie Stabenow, trailing Stabenow by 6.5 points.

The race was one of the ten closest Senate races of the 2018 midterms, but not one of the ten most expensive. Around $40 million was put into the race according to reporting by the Michigan Campaign Finance Network. Some states, like Florida, netted $200 million.

The playing field will look different this year. Now, both candidates have filed to be on the ballot—James with over 23,000 signatures in December and Peters with over 24,000 signatures last week.

In early evaluations, groups like the Cook Political Report project the race as leaning Democrat—satiating Democrats’ desire to place the race confidently in their column. But, their analysis cautions that the jury is far from out in this race stating, “Whether it makes it to the Toss Up column remains to be seen, and may rely on Republicans’ ability to define Peters before he can define himself.”

Republicans view the seat as fair game and Peters as vulnerable. In the third quarter—James out fundraised Peters by nearly $680,000 despite the fact that Peters’s campaign war chest is still considerably larger.

Republicans view the seat as fair game and Peters as vulnerable. In the third quarter James out fund-raised Peters by nearly $680,000 despite the fact that Peters campaign war chest is still considerably larger.

But James has impressed President Trump, who’s tweeted about him over a dozen times, and perhaps more notably the President’s dedicated base. 

Outside before the December 2019 rally in Battle Creek, Donna Gilliam said she’d already donated to James’ 2020 campaign, “I think Trump’s support will definitely give him a boost.”

The Playbook

Republicans have two reasons for hoping James can win. They think he may be able to win over suburban voters who don’t like Trump, but also don’t like the direction of the Democratic party. 

The other reason: many Michiganders may not even know who Gary Peters is. 

According to a poll conducted by the Lansing based Glengariff Group earlier this year, about a third of likely Michigan voters hadn’t heard of Peters. 

He avoids cable news and focuses on less polarizing issues like veterans’ affairs, trade, and prescription drug pricing. 

In December, Peters--a veteran himself-- touted a legislative victory to clean contaminated water near military bases on local TV. 

“The one area that I’ve focused a great deal of effort on as a member of the armed services committee was to make sure that the National Defense Authorization addressed the significant problem as a result of PFAS in Michigan including a number of sites around the state.”

The Problem Of Name ID

One of Peters’ disadvantages is his weak name recognition says Matt Grossman, a political scientist at Michigan State University. 

“And that can be fine if it’s a Democratic year. If it’s a Democratic year, people want to vote for the Democratic candidate. They’ll vote for Gary Peters, but most incumbents have more of an independent reputation than Gary Peters does. Gary Peters comes off as more of a generic Democratic,” Grossman said.

Apart from his annual motorcycle ride across Michigan the senator hasn’t created a strong brand with which voters associate him.

The Specter Of Impeachment Looms

As one of the 100 jurors in the upcoming impeachment trial of President Trump, Peters is about to receive more scrutiny. 

In a statement he called both articles, “very serious charges that deserve solemn consideration” calling for a “fair and non-partisan process.”

I am not actually a fan of his but we cannot afford to vote like that anymore. You know? you just have to vote the right way all the time and just do what you can.

At a December pro-impeachment rally in Lansing, Brandon Sartele said he thinks Peters isn’t liberal enough, but he still supports him. 

“I’m not actually a fan of his, but we can’t afford to vote like that anymore. You know? you just have to vote the right way all the time and just do what you can.” 

At the moment, both parties and candidates view the race as one that will be hard fought, but will end up in their column. The reality is—Michigan’s senate race will be overshadowed by the presidential race at the top of the ticket—but who wins could change whether Democrats or Republicans have a majority in the U.S. Senate.