Low-key Democrat tries to hang onto Senate seat in Michigan

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Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., speaks during an event for Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden at Michigan State Fairgrounds in Novi, Mich., Friday, Oct. 16, 2020. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

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.