Michigan is headed for a hotly contested Senate race next year as Sen. Gary Peters (D) faces off against Republican John James, a 38-year-old African American military veteran who’s widely seen as a rising star within the GOP.
The Senate race will take place in a crucial battleground state that will be heavily fought-over in the 2020 presidential election after President Trump narrowly edged out Hillary Clinton in the previous contest.
The GOP sees a prime pickup opportunity to defeat Peters, a 61-year-old first-time senator with low name recognition. His seat is rated “Lean Democrat” by the Cook Political Report and he is considered the most vulnerable Democratic senator after Doug Jones in Alabama.
Republicans have strongly unified around James, a combat veteran and businessman who lost a Senate race against Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D) in 2018. Peters, however, is seen as more vulnerable than Stabenow, who was in her third Senate term when she defeated James by more than 6 points last year.
James is also running unopposed in the GOP primary, unlike last year, and he has proven to be an adept fundraiser. He will be running in a presidential year when Republicans are highly motivated while Democrats appear divided as they agonize over who to pick as their presidential nominee.
“I think this race is going to be one of the top races in the country and I think for all the activity it has, it hasn’t really started yet,” a Republican source close to the James campaign told The Hill.
The race is likely to be very competitive. Though Michigan last elected a Republican senator in 1994 with Spencer Abraham, Trump was able to secure a narrow victory in the Wolverine State, marking the first time since 1988 that Michigan voted for a Republican presidential candidate.
Polling shows Peters with a single-digit lead in the race. A Marketing Resource Group poll released last month has him 3 points ahead, and an Emerson College poll gives him a 6-point lead.
Despite being a former three-term House representative, Peters suffers from low name recognition: 37 percent said they do not know who he is, the highest such number among all senators, according to polling conducted by Morning Consult during the July-September quarter.
He is also lagging in terms of campaign cash compared to James. The incumbent senator raised $3.09 million in the third quarter, compared to $2.5 million by his Republican challenger, but Peters had $3.8 million cash on hand, well below the $6.3 million held by James.
James is also seen as a prized recruit for the GOP despite losing against the more-established Stabenow last year.
An executive in the logistics business, James brings a compelling story as an African American in the Republican Party with experience fighting in Iraq. President Trump has referred to him as a “rising star” and mulled tapping James as United Nations ambassador earlier this year.
“I think someone who has a résumé like that, where someone has literally given his life to service and given his life to creating jobs, you don’t always find that in candidates,” said another GOP source familiar with the race. “I think it’s something that ultimately, you get the genuine nature of someone like this, you bring a lot of people under the tent.”
James also has seen the GOP unite around him, and Republicans already plan to tie Peters to the more progressive elements of the Democratic Party.
“In this one, the presidential Democrat field is pretty extreme: They’re talking about open borders, they’re talking about ‘Medicare for All,’ they’re talking about the Green New Deal, all things that don’t resonate well in Michigan. And it’s not one of them, it’s all of them,” the Republican close to the James campaign said.
Still, defeating Peters won’t be easy.
Democrats are signaling they will release an onslaught of digital and television ads tying James to Trump, as well as highlighting his opposition to the now-popular Affordable Care Act. James called the law, known as ObamaCare, a “monstrosity” during the 2018 campaign — and also praised Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, a top target for Democrats.
“I think James got a pass on some of his more egregious statements and positions he took throughout the race last year and I think he’s going to come under a whole lot more scrutiny this time around,” said Alex Japko, a spokesman for the Michigan Democratic Party who is also working on the Senate race.
“And whether he’s subjected to negative advertising for the first time or a real dig through his positions on calling the ACA a ‘monstrosity’ or saying he’s going to support Trump 2,000 percent or saying that Betsy DeVos is doing a very good job, there’s all these issues that I don’t think got totally litigated last year.”
Democrats also see in Peters a battle-hardened veteran of tight election campaigns. The Michigan Democrat flipped a longtime GOP House seat in 2008, survived the 2010 Tea Party wave and defeated a Democratic incumbent in a primary in 2012 after he was drawn out of his district, before winning his election to the Senate in 2014.
“I’m confident that Gary is in a position not just to take on competitive races — he’s seen them before, he’s come out and won. But putting that aside, he’s going to be focused on talking about what he’s done for the state and what he wants to continue to do,” said Lauren Passalacqua, communications director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.