Gary Peters was supposed to be fighting tooth and nail to keep his Senate seat. The Michigan Senator sits in a swing state, and his opponent, Air Force veteran John James, is a talented fundraiser that performed above expectations in his Senate run two years ago. Yet despite being one of the most unknown senators, Peters remains far ahead in most polls. The situation has frustrated Republicans, who increasingly find themselves on the defensive in the race to control the Senate. But the unfolding debacle in Michigan is entirely of their own doing. Gary Peters shouldn’t be coasting to re-election, and the blame for this failure falls squarely on the shoulders of the GOP.
While many Democrats brushed off the idea that Peters was seriously in danger, the numbers said otherwise. The Michigan Senate race could have very well been edging into toss-up territory right now. Donald Trump narrowly won the state in 2016, and the GOP landed a top tier Senate recruit in John James. A veteran and businessman, James ran in 2018 with little institutional support and a low profile. But he was able to run a skilled campaign and close the gap near the end, only losing by 6.5%. This was even as the GOP lost the Gubernatorial election by near double digits.
James was also able to hold his own in the state’s urban areas compared to Trump’s win two years earlier. While Republicans around the country tanked in cities and suburbs, James actually did better than Trump in these places. This was especially true in much of Detroit, Grand Rapids, and Ann Arbor. But James’ margins in many rural counties being over 10% lower than Trump’s doomed his chances at an upset.
This cycle, James has even been able to outraise Peters throughout the campaign. And because the Senate map presented Republicans with few pick up opportunities, James has had much more establishment support than last time. Given how close Senate and Presidential results have tracked in recent years, James should be fiercely competitive, potentially performing better than Donald Trump. But he’s not. Peters has consistently led in surveys of Michigan voters, often by double digits. His lead is so consistent that Elections Daily considers the race “Likely Democrat”. So what went wrong? In truth what has sunk James’ chances has been an increasingly hostile national environment and the GOP’s own strategy.
Before this year, very few observers could tell you much about Gary Peters. In fact, what was most well known about him was the fact that he registered consistently low name recognition. It is even possible that after Election Day 2018, James had higher name recognition amongst the electorate than Peters did. Republicans believed this gave them an opening. But the GOP made a key misstep in their strategy. Instead of using Peters’ anonymity as a means to attack Peters, they tried to use it as an attack in and of itself.
The party has constantly referred to “Jerry Peters” on social media, poking fun at how unknown he is. They even set up a parody account for “Jerry Peters” that they have tagged in posts. However, they curiously levied very few attacks beyond that. Most of the tweets that actually do mention Gary Peters are the same three videos warning that he supports the Green New Deal or Medicare for All. This strategy was a grievous error.
The GOP was right that Peters’s low name recognition was a weakness. But low name recognition hurts politicians because it makes them easier for the other party to define them negatively with attacks, not because it is an attack in and of itself. No voter in Michigan, or anywhere else for that matter, sours on an incumbent because an attack ad tells them that their neighbors do not know who he is. Granted, it is possible that the opposition research file on Peters is simply empty, but such a situation is rare for a sitting Senator. Usually, politicians that have been around as long as Peters can be attacked more substantially than making fun of their anonymity.
Of course, the environment has done James no favors. The President continues to poll poorly, and his numbers in Michigan have been no exception. According to RealClearPolitics, he is down 8.4% on average in the state. This is understandably a difficult environment for James. Even though he outran Republican gubernatorial nominee Bill Schutte in 2018, staying competitive if Trump is losing the state by near double digits would be a tall order.
But that being said, James is actually polling worse than Trump in Michigan according to RealClearPolitics (down 9.8%). This, moreso than James being down in the polls, points to a failure on the part of the GOP. Almost never do parties get Senate recruits who have higher name recognition than the incumbents. Usually, this only happens for sitting governors. The fact that James cannot match Trump’s standing in the polls is indicative of a mismanaged campaign.
In fairness to James and the GOP, Peters does have an impressive electoral record which has flown under the radar. He survived a difficult reelection campaign in the red wave of 2010, then he defeated a fellow incumbent in a primary after redistricting. Peters capped off the 2010’s by winning the open Senate seat in the 2014 Michigan Senate race by 14% despite Republicans dominating nationwide. Despite this, the GOP underestimated Peters going into this cycle.
While that is a more forgivable mistake, it is still the job of a party, with its millions of dollars and professional consultants, to know the electoral strength of the incumbents it wishes to defeat. The GOP was lazy at the start of the cycle, and it’s coming back to haunt them.
Time to Turn it Around
The next question for the James campaign is how to right the ship. There’s still time, and Trump improving in the polls will likely translate to him being more competitive in Michigan. But for right now, James’ is stuck in a hole. The Senate map has become increasingly bad for Republicans, and with resources being devoted to saving the likes of Steve Daines and Joni Ernst, the GOP has forgone going on the offensive with less than 100 days until the election.
Naturally, Republicans have fallen back on Donald Trump’s upset in Michigan in 2016 as evidence the polls are underestimating Republicans. Not only are there are good reasons to think the polls will not be off in the same way again, but Gary Peters current advantage is much bigger than Hillary Clinton’s was. She led by 3.6% in the final polling average, while Peters currently leads by 9.8%. James would need more than a polling error to pull out a win if the election were held today.
As of now, it looks like Republicans may have squandered an opening. In a year with few offensive opportunities in the Senate, a state like Michigan is the perfect chance to put Democrats on their heels. Despite that however, John James has not put the race in the toss-up category, or even been able to make Gary Peters sweat. Instead, the race has only moved further away from the GOP.
While Republicans have made serious missteps, it is also true that Democrats need to be careful. If the national environment does tighten in earnest, Michigan as a state could back into toss-up territory. Yes, Peters has run strong, but he is not running far enough ahead of Biden to be comfortable if the state is a toss-up on the presidential level. If the NRSC and James are able to correct their errant strategy, perhaps James can be competitive. But until that happens, the Michigan Senate race will remain a missed opportunity for the GOP.