As the campaign season for 2020 ramps up, the 2020 Senate race in the swing state of Michigan remains an enigma in the minds of many politicos and election watchers. Can the upstart Republican business owner John James unseat Senator Gary Peters, who dismissed a former Michigan Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land in 2014 by double-digits? Looking at the various factors of the election, it becomes clear that 2020 offers Republicans the greatest chance they win a Senate race in Michigan since 1994.
Just who is John James?
John James is the candidate that the NRSC and statewide GOP have lined up behind for the Senate election. James has been the CEO of Renaissance Global Logistics and director of operations at James Group, both large businesses based in the Detroit metro. He exceeded expectations in the 2018 Michigan Senate race by keeping longtime senator Debbie Stabenow to a 6.5% win. This surprisingly small margin made Democratic strategists nervous after the fact.
James offers a strong bio for a candidate in Michigan. He’s a businessman from a metro area, a strong fundraiser with an ability to self-fund, and a veteran. James took multiple tours in Operation Iraqi Freedom as an Apache helicopter pilot in his eight-year service with the U.S. Army.
Since his better-than-expected margin in what was considered a likely or safe Democratic win in 2018, James has attracted the attention of Republican donors statewide and nationwide. President Trump has also expressed his interest in James in multiple tweets. His praise of James as a “future STAR of the Republican Party” in an August 2018 tweet was particularly noteworthy.
Just who is Gary Peters?
Gary Peters, the incumbent Democratic senator, was first elected in 2014. This swing state win in an otherwise-GOP wave puts him in a unique position among senators. His name recognition is low for an incumbent senator; a March 2020 poll conducted by Marketing Resource Group (MRG), for instance, found that almost one-third of Michigan voters have not heard of Peters or have no opinion on him. For a politician who has been in statewide office for over five years, that is eyebrow-raising.
Despite his low name identification, Gary Peters has been a prominent Michigan politician for years. Peters, like James, is also a veteran, having served in the U.S. Navy Reserve for 14 years. After serving, Peters ran for city council in Rochester Hills, a suburb of Detroit in northeast Oakland County in 1991. Peters then served in the Michigan state senate from 1995-2002. Term-limited out, Peters ran for Michigan Attorney General in 2002. He lost the open seat in a contested race to Republican Mike Cox by less than 6,000 votes.
After his bitter loss, Governor Jennifer Granholm appointed Peters Commissioner of the Michigan Lottery, which sells scratch-off tickets and other online games whose proceeds go to fund the state public education system. In 2008, Peters resigned from the Lottery Commissioner’s office to run for Congress again in his Oakland County-based seat. He won this and served until he decided to run for Senate in 2014 after state legend Carl Levin announced his retirement.
Peters went on to win the 2014 Michigan Senate race by a landslide margin of 13.3%. He was the only non-incumbent Democratic candidate to win nationwide that year. In the Senate, Peters is now the ranking member of the Senate Homeland Security Committee.
Wait, Gary Peters won by how much in 2014?
If his 2014 margin caught you off-guard, then perhaps a bit of context is in order. The 2014 Michigan Senate race was eyed with boundless desire and hunger by the NRSC following Carl Levin’s retirement. The GOP saw a chance to finally reclaim a Senate seat for the first time since Debbie Stabenow unseated Spencer Abraham in 2000. Republicans were hungry for a strong candidate and courted moderate House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp and Oakland County District Court Judge Kimberly Small. Camp weighed his bid, but decided against running for the open seat, opting instead to retire and return to the private sector. Small also decided against running.
The NRSC and Michigan GOP were stunned by this, so they hastily tried courting other candidates. Among the people who declined were Rep. Justin Amash and Holland Mayor Kurt Dykstra. Desperate, Republicans turned to cardiologist and RNC Committeeman, Rob Steele, who also declined to run. After the filing deadline passed, Republicans were left with former Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land.
“I can’t do this”
The 2014 Michigan Senate race can only be described as a Category 5 dumpster fire for Republicans. Plans A through Z failed in recruitment, and any latent hopes that Land would be able to win regardless of her weakness faded as the campaign moved on. One of they key moments of Land’s defeat was a May 2014 interview at the Detroit Regional Chamber conference on Mackinac Island. Land appeared to be overwhelmed by the number of reporters around her. Land prefers one-on-one style interviews – she says she likes to talk with her hands – and she felt that all of the microphones were invading her personal space. It was at that moment when Land uttered the phrase “I can’t do this”.
“I can’t do this” was the phrase heard around the state, from Detroit to Kalamazoo, from Lansing to Marquette, from Flint to Traverse City. Peters held his ground and answered questions directly, which played well compared to Land’s indirect answers to questions on topics such as support of the Obama-era auto bailout. Seeing potential disaster, Land’s media staffer abruptly ended the interview and Land walked away. After this, the Peters campaigned seized on the scrum. Media outlets reported the “I can’t do this” phrase as meaning that Land couldn’t do media interviews (instead of scrums). Instead of picking up the pieces, the Land campaign went from tailspin into all-out Chernobyl-style nuclear fallout.
After that moment, Land refused to debate Gary Peters. This led to Peters having hours-long town-hall sessions instead of a battle of ideas. Land refused all four invitations to debates with Peters. Land also refused multiple reporter inquiries, essentially leaving her campaign uncovered statewide outside of the media spots her campaign bought. Seeing less and less hope, the NRSC pulled funding for the race in October.
Peters went on to win the Senate race by double digits, winning counties such as Alpena, Monroe, and Alger. These ancestral Dem counties have otherwise become very Republican-friendly. With such a unique circumstance surrounding the 2014 Senate race, it is perhaps unwise to drive performance that year as reasoning for Peters’ strength in 2020.
So, what does Peters have going for him in 2020?
Facing a much tougher race for reelection in 2020 than in election in 2014, Peters does have some factors that help his chances.
Peters is the incumbent, so he has the advantage of claiming that he has done legislative work for the state of Michigan. He also has established statewide brand he could potentially call upon. Additionally, he has also seen strong fundraising quarters. Peters raised $4 million in Q1 of 2020, one of the highest totals ever for a candidate in Michigan.
The Biden campaign is likely to campaign heavily in Michigan in 2020 as one of the preeminent swing states of the campaign season. This gives Peters the chance to hitch himself to Biden’s efforts to pass the auto bailout. Straight-ticket voting has been reinstated in Michigan for 2020 after not being allowed for 2018. Straight-ticket voting has been common in Michigan for years and might help Peters with lower-information voters.
Perhaps Peters gets an approval bounce from coronavirus, where many incumbent politicians are seeing approval jumps. This comes with the caveat that it is unclear if that bounce has spread to legislative politicians.
Finally, Peters likely will campaign for himself this year. Stabenow by and large didn’t campaign for herself in 2018. Instead, she campaigned for the unified Dem ticket of Governor Gretchen Whitmer, Attorney General Dana Nessel, and Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson.
So, what does John James have going for him?
On the other hand, there are also a number of factors at play that benefit the challenger John James.
Peters has much lower name recognition than Stabenow. Being less of a household name gives the challenger the rare chance to define their opponent early. James has a shot of defining Peters in a negative light to the one-third of voters who are unfamiliar with the senator.
Peters’ 2014 election was not that tough of a race. In fact, Peters hasn’t run a tough race since his 2002 Attorney General campaign. There is hope in the James campaign that this means Peters is rusty and doesn’t have the skills to run a competitive campaign in the current realignment.
After his 2018 campaign, James has established a statewide brand as opposed to being an unknown against Stabenow. With an apparatus at work, James has a fundraising list that he can continue to expand in 2020 from 2018. He has also piqued interest from nationwide GOP officials and insiders who are optimistic from his 2018 performance.
Michigan Dems still have room to fall potentially with rural Michigan voters; they still regularly get 30-40% in rural counties. Even if James gets swamped in urban and suburban centers (like he was in 2018), there is a shot he can be carried over the edge in 2020 if Biden and Peters don’t see much increase in the suburbs while Trump and James see increased margins in the rurals. Finally, despite Peters’ strong fundraising, James has also outraised Peters for the last two financial quarters.
Some factors that could go either way
There are a list of factors about 2020 that could adversely affect either James or Peters. Time will tell how they impact the race.
Turnout dynamics in 2020, a presidential year, are likely to be different than 2018, a Democratic midterm. Democrat were much more motivated to vote in 2018 than Republicans were. This might improve margins across the board, but a presidential year may also see increased turnout from black voters that could help Peters.
Michigan voters don’t quite know who either Peters or James are. Depending on who spends more and defines the other negatively first, that dynamic has yet to come into play. It is a rare opportunity for both candidates to define themselves as well.
It’s still very early in the campaign season. Most voters don’t begin to tune in until after Labor Day. Because of this, many of the polls conducted today could very well change once we get closer to November. Plus, with the coronavirus upending life as we know it, that may affect the race in ways we are unable to know at the current moment.
Gary Peters is in the fight for his life in 2020. The race is very much up in the air due to the unknowns (including the candidates). There remains a chance for both Peters and James to define themselves and each other. With both Trump and Biden on the ticket, it is still unclear how the presidential dynamic may impact the senate race. Polls conducted thus far have shown a slight but steady lead for Peters. I would argue he remains a slight favorite as of today, but there is a very strong argument that 2020 could be the breakthrough Republicans have wanted for decades.