Year of extremes in politics? Not in Michigan Senate race.

Why We Wrote This

In Senate races nationwide, Democrats hope for a “blue wave.” Michigan could be an exception, where a Republican – campaigning in a style very different from President Trump’s – may unseat an incumbent Democrat.

Paul Sancya/AP
Republican U.S. Senate candidate John James drops his ballot with his family at City Hall in Farmington Hills, Michigan, Oct. 26, 2020. Mr. James, who is challenging Democratic incumbent Sen. Gary Peters, is a West Point graduate, Army veteran, and Detroit-area businessman.

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Michigan, a battleground state that Donald Trump won narrowly in 2016, is a rare bright spot for Republicans amid a slew of difficult Senate races nationwide. As they look at possible losses of seats elsewhere, here Republicans have at least an outside shot at picking off an incumbent Democrat. 

Gary Peters is a Harley-riding first-term senator with a professorial demeanor and reputation for moderation. Republican John James is a West Point graduate, Army veteran, and Detroit-area businessman. Polls show a tight enough race that money has poured in for both sides.

In a sense, the campaign harks back to Michigan’s pre-Trump days. These candidates point toward the survival of strategies aimed at appealing to moderates. They are downplaying party affiliation and calling for bipartisanship. Some top issues in the campaign are schools, health care, and housing. 

“I see [Mr. James] as more of a classical conservative, the way we think of conservatism before the Trump years,” says Peter Wielhouwer, a political expert at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. “Neither is extreme. Neither of them reflects the extremes of today’s national political parties.”

Here, at least, a small ray of hope glimmers for Republicans.

With national polls showing President Donald Trump imperiled in his quest for a second term, attention – and money – has shifted to the U.S. Senate, where Republicans are fighting to hold on to their slender 53-47 edge over Democrats and independents.

It doesn’t look good for them. Of the 35 Senate seats up for election this year, the Cook Political Report has rated nine held by Republicans as either toss-ups or leaning Democratic. In contrast, only two seats held by Democrats are thought to be in jeopardy – one a nearly certain loss in Alabama. 

The other is here in Michigan, a battleground state that Mr. Trump won narrowly in 2016. Voters are deciding between first-term Sen. Gary Peters, a Harley-riding Democrat with a professorial demeanor and reputation for moderation, and Republican John James, a West Point graduate, Army veteran, and Detroit-area businessman who is making his second run for the Senate. Money is pouring in on both sides, much of it from outside the state. The candidates have so far raised $56 million, making the race one of the most expensive in the country. 

Polls suggest a close contest. Indeed, Mr. James seems to be more popular than Mr. Trump, while the incumbent Democrat, Mr. Peters, lags Joe Biden. The most recent polls show Mr. Biden with an 8.6-point lead over Mr. Trump in Michigan while Mr. Peters’ lead averages just 6.7 points, according to tracking by the RealClearPolitics website. Some observers consider the race a toss-up, although a newly released Detroit News-WDIV poll shows Mr. Peters’ lead expanding.

There’s a lot at stake for both sides. If Republicans can keep their hold on the Senate, they could sharply constrain a potential Biden administration both in its legislative goals and judicial appointments. It was a Republican Senate, after all, that blocked former President Barack Obama from filling the Supreme Court seat of Antonin Scalia as well as other open seats on federal courts across the country.  

“The Democrats are going to do everything they can to keep this seat,” says David Dulio, a political scientist at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan. “The party has to defend this seat they have before going after the seats they don’t. I think this one is at the top of their lists.”

Candidates who appeal to moderates

In a sense, the campaign harks back to Michigan’s pre-Trump days. While ads filling the airwaves sizzle with fierce attacks on both sides, these Senate candidates point toward the survival of strategies aimed at appealing to moderates. They are downplaying party affiliation and calling for bipartisanship. Mr. James, who said in 2018 that he supported Mr. Trump “2,000%,” has tried this time to keep some distance from the president. He spoke at a recent Trump rally in Michigan but left before Mr. Trump arrived. 

Carolyn Kaster/AP
Sen. Gary Peters speaks during an event for Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden at Michigan State Fairgrounds in Novi on Oct. 16, 2020. Some analysts call Mr. Peters a quietly effective senator, yet his low profile may have opened the door to a tough reelection campaign.

 “I see him as more of a classical conservative, the way we think of conservatism before the Trump years,” says Peter Wielhouwer, director of the Institute of Government and Politics at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. “Peters is a typical Democrat but has a reputation for being more moderate. Neither is extreme. Neither of them reflects the extremes of today’s national political parties.”

Issues that loom large in the campaign include federal support for public schools, care and housing for veterans (both candidates are veterans), trade policy toward China, and especially health care and the pandemic. Mr. James has benefited from the lack of any record to attack. He’s never held public office and has mostly made general statements about public policy.  

Mr. Peters has a record. He’s been in the Senate six years. This has given Mr. James and his supporters plenty of opportunity for attack. But fact-checkers at the Detroit Free Press say Mr. Peters has worked quietly and effectively in the Senate and that many of the attacks, such as that Mr. Peters downplayed the coronavirus, are false or misleading. That specific jab by Mr. James shows how deeply the pandemic has intruded into races across the country, forcing a Trump supporter like himself to take it far more seriously than the president has.

“He didn’t get out much”

One obstacle facing both candidates is simply a lack of attention, despite a season of hypercharged national politics. This is particularly a problem for Mr. Peters, who is not well known among his constituents, even after six years in office. Each year he mounts his Harley-Davidson and takes a weeklong tour of the state – travels amply highlighted in his ads. But if he ever stopped in Benton Harbor, a poor and largely Black community in the state’s far southwest corner, many residents don’t recall it.

“He didn’t get out much,” says Rodney Alexander, a Democratic voter. Mr. Alexander says he would nonetheless vote for Mr. Peters because he wants Democrats to take control of the Senate. “You can’t get anything passed without control of the Senate,” he says.

Other voters in the neighborhood said they would vote for Mr. Biden but were unsure about the Senate race.

“I haven’t thought much about that,” says Fred Rivers, a retired worker at a local juvenile center. He guessed he would leave the rest of his ballot blank.

Mr. James, in contrast, enjoys some familiarity with voters. Just two years ago he ran for the Senate against Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow. Although he lost, he did better than other Republicans running that year.

Battling for on-the-fence voters

“Peters has a natural incumbency advantage, but the nature of Michigan politics means he’s getting a stronger than usual run for his money,” says Mr. Wielhouwer, who is located 50 miles east of Benton Harbor. “James did pretty well two years ago. He’s leveraged that into strong name recognition and a squeaky-clean image that makes him attractive in today’s political environment.”

Paul Sancya/AP
Vice President Mike Pence and Republican U.S. Senate candidate John James pray before lunch at The Engine House in Mount Clemens, Michigan, on June 18, 2020. Mr. James has distanced himself somewhat from President Donald Trump in the 2020 campaign.

Mr. James may also benefit from “Never Trumpers” who will vote for Mr. Biden but stick with Republicans for state and local races.  

One of them is Mark Mawhinney, a real estate agent in St. Joseph, a small city just across the St. Joseph River from Benton Harbor. He ordered a “Republicans for Biden” sign from a local sign-maker and stuck it in the grass in front of his house, on St. Joseph’s busy main street. And yet Mr. Mawhinney says he voted for Mr. James and other Republicans on the ballot.

“I believe in the Republican values that existed 20 years ago,” he says. “Ronald Reagan was a favorite of mine.” 

One question is whether Mr. James, who is African American, can attract the votes of other African Americans who might otherwise have voted Democratic. Republicans hope so. “I think we’re getting some crossover with Black voters,” says Scott McGraw, chairman of the Republican Party in Kalamazoo County, just east of Benton Harbor. “Which he’s trying to tap into.”

Here in Benton Harbor, a number of Black voters dismiss that idea as wishful thinking.

“In the Black community, we just don’t vote for you because you’re African American,” says Trenton Bowens, a civil rights activist in Benton Harbor. “A lot of people I talk to, they look at him as a car salesman. They talk a good game, but they’re not to be trusted.”

Samuel Williams, an electrician, paused as he unloaded his truck in a leafy residential neighborhood to say that color didn’t matter to him. He had already voted, and he had voted for all Democrats. Mr. James didn’t interest him. “I don’t care if he’s white, green, or blue,” he says. 

One group that could boost Mr. James’ chances are farmers. Two years ago, the Michigan Farm Bureau endorsed his opponent, Ms. Stabenow, the incumbent Democrat, because she held a powerful position as ranking member of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry. This time around, the Farm Bureau has endorsed Mr. James.

“John James is a businessman,” says Carl Bednarski, a corn, bean, and sugar beet farmer in northeastern Michigan and president of the Farm Bureau. “He’s a good communicator. He understands agriculture.”

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