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Michigan Senate race between James, Peters closer than top of ticket

side by side headshots of James, Peters
Photos courtesy of the campaigns
Polls show an increasingly tighter race for Michigan's junior Senate seat between Democratic incumbent Senator Gary Peters and Republican challenger John James. Some experts say the Senate race may be closer than the presidential race in Michigan.

With nearly 20 days to go until the November election recent polls show Democratic Senator Gary Peters and Republican challenger John James as neck and neck. Peters’ ten-point lead in the polls over the summer has winnowed to single digits.

Tied Fortunes

James – a former Army helicopter pilot and businessman – ran for Senate in 2018 and lost. But he got closer to Michigan’s senior Senator Debbie Stabenow than pundits and pollsters expected he would, proving himself to be a charismatic candidate and a prolific fundraiser.

The Black, conservative millennial is pitching himself as a departure from the status quo focused on rebuilding economic and educational opportunity in the state.

When he ran in 2018, he received tweet endorsements and rising star treatment from President Donald Trump, who won the state by less than 11,000 votes in 2016 – at one point saying he supported Trump’s agenda “2,000 percent.”

This year, James is walking a thin line: appealing to conservatives and the Trump coalition, while distancing himself from the president whose favorability ratings are falling as he currently polls behind former Vice President Joe Biden in the state.

He has condemned Democrat attack ads and press releases emblazoned with the 2,000 percent quote, but has appeared alongside Trump and surrogates at most appearances in the state, including an appearance in Battle Creek the night the president was impeached by the U.S. House of Representatives. He also took the stage at a recent rally with thousands of people in Freeland which was criticized by public health officials as a potential COVID-19 super spreader event.  

According to Jessica Taylor, the Senate and Governor’s editor at the Cook Political Report, James’ fortune in the U.S. Senate race is tied to the president’s performance in the state. For James to have a chance, she said the topline split between Biden and Trump needs to get tighter.

"I think for James to have a real shot, you know, that number needs to get to three or so perhaps. And right now, if it's a seven, and it's been pretty stable, sort of in that range for really the past few months. I think that that just becomes a lot harder." - Jessica Taylor, editor at The Cook Political Report

“I think for James to have a real shot, you know, that number needs to get to three or so perhaps. And right now, if it's a seven, and it's been pretty stable, sort of in that range for really the past few months. I think that that just becomes a lot harder,” said Taylor.

However, she doesn’t discount the race is close.

“I think that there's a good chance that Peters could run behind Biden. So, I think that we could even see the Senate race be closer than the presidential race,” said Taylor.

"Well, what we're seeing on the ground with real actual people is people are fired up. People are excited." - John James, Republican candidate for U.S. Senate

On an episode of Fox & Friends, James said even with Biden leading Trump by several points, he thinks a Republican ticket will win.

“Well, what we're seeing on the ground with real actual people is people are fired up. People are excited. People are [recognizing] that what's been going on in Washington isn't working and they're not believing the lies that they're being fed from the leftist media,” said James.

Tightening Polls

An early October New York Times/Siena College Research Institute poll of 614 likely Michigan voters showed a more than 10-point gulf between Biden and Peters among support from Black voters. Peters also trails Biden’s support with women, but is still winning the group.

However, all six October polls still place the Democratic incumbent ahead. Bernie Porn is the President of Lansing polling outfit Epic-MRA. He said their most recent poll reported three big issues on the minds of Michigan voters: 25% of surveyed voters selected reopening the economy and schools, and restoring jobs lost because of COVID, 22% selected controlling coronavirus cases and deaths, and 12% chose reducing crime.

The remaining surveyed voters chose a myriad of issues from climate change to affordable healthcare.

“And on the issue of reopening the economy: those who chose that are solidly voting for John James. Those who [said] crime in the cities are solidly voting for John James and those who cited the coronavirus and all other issues are voting for Gary Peters,” said Porn.

Supreme Court Spotlight

Recently, the shadow of a Supreme Court hearing cast undercurrents of the campaign into stark relief in the weeks before the election. Money, which had steadily poured in, flooded both campaigns.

James has outraised Peters several quarters in a row. But this quarter, bolstered by a swell of Democratic donations after the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg – both campaigns announced $14 million-dollar hauls.

The Senate Leadership Fund super PAC announced it would put $9 million into the race to support James in early October.

In a selfie-style video campaign check-in James posted to Twitter to celebrate the haul: “By the grace of God and the generosity of all of you out there we’re one of the only Republican campaigns in the country to match our Democrat opponent in fundraising this quarter, which is really awesome,” he said.

The Michigan Campaign Finance Network expects spending on the race will top $100 million.

The U.S. Supreme Court hearing also raised key differences between the candidates in the race like the future of the Affordable Care Act.

Peters took the opportunity to highlight his support for the healthcare plan and question what would happen if the court overturns the law when it hears an ACA case in November.

On an Instagram Live with former presidential candidate and former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, Pete Buttigieg, he said, “We have a very real shot to take the majority in the United States Senate. It’s very real. And now when we're in the Supreme Court fight it's clear how important the United States Senate is and having a democratic majority is absolutely critical.”

"We have a very real shot to take the majority in the United States Senate. It's very real." - U.S. Senator Gary Peters

James – who’d been reticent to take a position on the ACA lawsuit – said he didn’t support it, “without a plan in place” in a late September TV interview with WZZM.  Previously, he had offered that he will support people with pre-existing conditions without specifying how.

Second Chance v. Second Term

Now in its final stages, the race has gotten ugly with attack ads flooding the airwaves and digital spaces.

Peters acknowledges the race is now within the margin of error. On a recent Instagram live, Peters laid out the stakes of the race for Michigan’s junior Senate seat for national Democrats.

Aside from Senator Doug Jones, an Alabama Democrat, Peters is the only Democrat up for reelection in a state that the president won in 2016.

“So right now, the polls are close. We're basically right at the margin of error. And that's why they're pouring money in. It's absolutely critical that we have the resources to keep fighting the battle,” said Peters.

Peters remains a moderate Democrat whose laser focused on issues like the ACA, postal service delays, and water contamination. Though his name-ID for a sitting senator was low throughout the campaign, both candidates are now virtually tied in name recognition.

That said, he’s pulled off upsets that didn’t seem feasible before winning a competitive 2014 race. Lately his campaign has been trying to boost its cash and Peters’ name-ID relying on senators and Democrats with national reputations.

Peters also has a swath of endorsements from more than 20 labor organizations including AFL-CIO, SEIU, UAW, and the Michigan Association of Police Organizations. The senator has also been endorsed by the Detroit Free Press editorial board and the Detroit Regional Chamber.

But, James has also received coveted endorsements in the last few weeks from the Police Officers Association of Michigan, the Michigan Farm Bureau, and the Michigan Corn Growers Association.

"If James can get those votes, some of those votes that Stabenow got in agricultural areas like the thumb and West Michigan, maybe. Is enough to make a difference? We will see on Election Day." - David Dulio, professor of political science, Oakland University

“If James can get those votes, some of those votes that Stabenow got in agricultural areas, like the thumb and West Michigan, maybe. Is it enough to make a difference? We’ll see on Election Day,” said Dulio.

For Democrats, Michigan’s Senate seat is crucial. They need it to flip the Senate in order to gain a majority. And, for Republicans, nabbing the seat would mean bragging rights and electing the first Republican from Michigan in a presidential year since 1972.

Editor’s note: An original version of this article referred to Peters’ name recognition being low weeks out from election. This has been corrected to reflect current polling.

Abigail Censky is the Politics & Government reporter at WKAR. She started in December 2018.