GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. – Call him low-key, understated, maybe even “boring." First-term Sen. Gary Peters of Michigan is betting voters care more about his effectiveness, as he desperately fights to keep a seat his party is counting on to take the Senate majority.
The bespectacled, bearded 61-year-old former investment adviser is a rare Senate candidate this cycle, a Democrat running in a battleground state Donald Trump carried in 2016. But unlike Democrat Joe Biden, whose lead over the president has grown, Peters is finding it tougher to shake top Republican recruit John James, a Black business executive and combat veteran.
Michigan has something it has not seen in 20 years — a competitive Senate contest — with control of the chamber hanging in the balance and Peters trying to cut through a polarizing political climate.
Peters was the only non-incumbent Democrat to win a Senate election in 2014, when he prevailed easily despite the GOP’s successes nationally and in Michigan. He told The Associated Press his reelection campaign is “basically me just focusing on my job,” as the U.S. combats the coronavirus pandemic and the economic fallout. “I think what Michiganders want is someone who rolls up their sleeves, gets things done, not out there throwing rocks all the time."
Some allies fret that it has been tough for the nonflashy Peters to stand out with his message of pragmatism and bipartisanship. In a change from 2018, when James lost by 6.5 percentage points to the state’s senior senator, Debbie Stabenow, James has outraised Peters since announcing his candidacy. Super PACs and other outside groups on both sides are spending heavily in one of Republicans' few pickup opportunities on the Senate map.
“Biden's numbers are stable. He seems to be consolidating exactly the coalition of voters" that propelled Democrats to Michigan's top offices in 2018, said Lonnie Scott, executive director of the liberal advocacy group Progress Michigan. “That is just not the case with Peters.”
Peters' fate could hinge on his ability in the closing weeks to seize on Democratic enthusiasm and win over younger voters, women, independents and especially African Americans. All largely back both Biden and Peters, but a bigger percentage remain undecided in the Senate race, according to some polls.
“I think 2016 showed that we can't take anything for granted,” Scott said.
Peters touted his governing approach at a small get-out-the-vote campaign event Friday in downtown Grand Rapids, which remained quiet because of the pandemic. He said he ranks as one of the most bipartisan Senate Democrats and, despite being a freshman in the minority, has written and passed more of his bills than any other senator.
He greeted several supporters who put their absentee ballots in a roadside drop box rather than use the mail. Michigan is on track for record turnout, an advantage for Democrats. “Make a plan to vote,” Peters said, noting that no-excuse absentee voting and same-day voter registration are legal under a 2018 ballot initiative.
He later joined Biden's own campaign stops in the Detroit area.
Before winning promotion to the Senate, Peters was a congressman, lottery commissioner and state senator and served in the Navy Reserve. Biden called him a “go-to” lawmaker for the Obama administration when Biden was vice president.
Peters is no stranger to tough races. He beat an incumbent Republican in 2008 and survived a national GOP wave in the 2010 midterm.
Stu Sandler, a consultant for James' campaign, said support for Peters is “soft all around. People don't know him, they don't think he'd work for them. He talks about his record, but people can't name anything he's done.”
Democrats need to gain at least three seats to win the Senate majority if Biden is elected, or four if Trump wins a second term, because the vice president can vote as a tie-breaker.
Democrats say the bitter Supreme Court nomination fight has helped nationalize the Michigan contest and highlight the stakes, including the fate of the Obama-era health care law and potentially reproductive rights. Peters, who will vote against confirming Amy Coney Barrett, went public earlier this week with the story of his ex-wife's abortion. She faced serious health risks after being told to wait for a miscarriage to occur naturally, he told Elle magazine.
He said Friday he had heard an “outpouring” of similar stories from women in recent days. Karen Dunnam, a 63-year-old Democratic retiree from Grand Rapids, cited the story after voting absentee for Peters.
“Sen. Peters is going to bring it home," she said. "What he released about his former wife's issues with medical care, I think a lot of people will say: ‘OK, this is his position on this. He cares about us instead of just playing politics.’"
Experts say the result will depend in large part on the top of the ticket. The party that wins the presidential race almost always takes the Senate contest, too, and it could prove tough for either candidate to substantially outperform his party's presidential nominee. Republicans have won just one of Michigan's last 15 Senate races, in 1994.
James, 39, “is a top-tier recruit in a state that surprised a lot of people in 2016,” said Jon McHenry, a Republican pollster. “I think the question there is, Does President Trump keep the race close enough that James can run far enough ahead to win?”
Black voters could be especially critical. Garlin Gilchrist II, the state’s first Black lieutenant governor, said Peters can seal the deal by letting people of color know “he’s going to be a fighter and show up for them.”
Jim Manley, a strategist and former top aide to Senate Democrats, said Michigan is getting more attention as Democrats' prospects of taking the majority brighten. Peters and Democratic groups had spent about $51 million on advertising as of Friday, topping $41 million in spending by James and GOP organizations. Recent polls have been mixed. Most showed Peters as leading or slightly ahead, while some indicated a very close race.
“No one in this case should take anything for granted given the amount of dark money that's sloshing around," Manley said, while expressing confidence in Peters. “There might be a little hand-wringing here and there, but I think most everyone believes that he's going to win.”
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