Michigan emerges as crucial battleground in fight for the Senate

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Gary Peters

Sen. Gary Peters is one of just two Democratic senators up for reelection in states President Donald Trump carried in 2016. | Carlos Osorio/AP Photo

2020 elections

Sen. Gary Peters is counting on his understated style to win reelection over star GOP recruit John James.

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — Democrat Gary Peters, a bearded, buttoned-down genial Midwesterner who could easily pass for the investment adviser he once was, is known in the Senate mostly for steering as far clear from the spotlight as he possibly can. One ally calls him a “worker bee,” while a Republican describes him as“about as exciting as a bowl of cold oatmeal.”

Next year, the unassuming senator with a surprising knack for winning tough races will face the fight of his political career against a pair of opponents no one would describe as low-key: John James, a charismatic West Point graduate who appears frequently on Fox News Channel, and James’ No. 1 ally, President Donald Trump. The importance of Michigan to Trump’s reelection hopes and to Democrats’ uphill fight to recapture the Senate guarantees that, like it or not, the spotlight is coming for Peters.

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Peters is one of just two Democratic senators up for reelection in states Trump carried in 2016 — and the only senator in his party running in the trio of Midwestern states Trump won that remain critical to his path to a second term. But despite having such a low profile that one recent poll showed a third of Michigan voters haven’t heard of him, Peters insists he has no plans to change his approach.

“Part of being known is if you’re on cable news and TV throwing rocks and getting attention yourself,” Peters said in an interview. “That’s not who I am.”

The interview came during an annual ritual for Peters decidedly at odds with his D.C. persona: a motorcycle tour of the state with a motley crew of Harley-riding friends. Back home over August recess, Peters donned a leather jacket, baggy jeans and thick black boots for the five-day, 1,000-plus-mile excursion stretching from Detroit to the Upper Peninsula and back.

On the final leg of the tour Friday, Peters stopped off at a gas station between briefings at the regional airport and a National Guard facility to pick up his entourage: a dozen bikers in leather jackets, Harley-Davidson T-shirts and patch-covered denim jackets. It was one of several crews taking turns escorting the first-term senator across the state’s back roads.

Peters said there’s a “real cross section of Michigan that loves to ride” — and the bike trip is a way to convey to them that he hasn’t gone Washington.

“I think Michiganders don’t want somebody who’s flashy and loves to run to the camera and the lights,” he addedover coffee at New Beginnings, a diner just down the road from the airport.

Republicans knock Peters as dull, unknown and without a signature accomplishment. But Steven Law, who runs a GOP super PAC aiming to take out Peters and coined the “cold oatmeal” barb, also said the 60-year-old Peters won’t be a pushover.

“Peters is a hard-working, disciplined guy,” Law said. “I don’t know that that makes up for being a completely unexciting political commodity.”

James was recruited by party leaders to run for Senate again after he was defeated by Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow last year. A black Armyveteran, James has star power and a loyal following among party faithful.

After a brief speech at Livingston County Vet Fest, a local event lastweekfor community veterans featuring live rockmusic, bounce houses and barbecue, more than a dozen supporters lined up for selfies with James. Most said they voted for him in 2018 and would again in 2020.

“I don’t quit. I don’t have quit in my background,” James said in an interview at a Panera just down the road from the event. “This is a nation of second chances, and I think people want to see somebody who is willing to get back up, dust themselves off and continue to fight for them in Washington.”

Both parties acknowledge the top of the ticket is likely to dominate in the state, tying the Senate candidates to the success of Trump or his opponent. Republicans recruited James for his existing profile and fundraising prowess — and they are also bankingon the premise that he can attract voters beyond Trump’s base, particularly in Detroit and the surrounding counties. But Democrats point out James lost those areas in his 7-point defeat to Stabenow — including Macomb County, the critical swing suburb Trump carried two years earlier.

Democrats plan to tie James directly to Trump, pointing out often that he said during the primary in 2018 he was “2,000 percent” with the president’s agenda.

“There’s no daylight between Donald Trump and his tweets, and John James,” Peters said. “He’s basically a Donald Trump clone running for the Senate.”

James defended those remarks, saying he was highlighting similarities during his last primary. He now favors a tactic in dealing the president similar to current Republican senators: He can disagree with him — privately.

“I can agree with the president without worshipping him,” he said. “I can disagree with the president without attacking him.”

Peters, meanwhile, is trying to keep his own top of the ticket focused on fixing the mistakes of 2016. He wrote an open letter to hisparty’spresidentialcandidates prior to lastmonth’s debate in Detroit calling for them to focus on kitchen-table issues — only to see the debate become a fight between liberal and moderate factions. He said he expects more focus on his set of issues as the field narrows.

Republicans plan to attack Peters as beholden to the furthest left of his primary: They commissioneda billboard tying him to the “Green New Deal” (he has said he supports “aspects” of it) and to “Medicare for All,” though Peters does not support it, favoring a public option. But that strategy depends on who wins the primary; Peters said he will be “engaged” with the nominee to make sure his issues are addressed.

“I think it’s important for the Democratic Party to understand we’re not just a party of the coasts,” he said. “We’re also a party of the heartland of America.”

Republicans’ main argument against Peters isn’t necessarily tying him to his party’s yet-unknown nominee, but instead arguing he has done little of value in office to earn another term. James derided Peters as a “career politician” and said he hasn’t fixed the very issues on which he’s campaigned.

Peters plans to directly rebut that argument. In the interview, he listed backing the auto industry, job-skills retraining, protecting the Great Lakes and addressingtoxic-chemical contamination as accomplishments — serious issues in the state, but not exactly big-ticket items that drive headlines.

He also emphasizes his work on defense issues. Peters, a Navy Reserve veteran who was deployed to the Persian Gulf, emphasized his role on the Armed Services Committee and his spot as the top Democrat on Homeland Security during his visit here. He climbed into several helicopters for hands-on briefings at the Guard facility andlater fielded questions from several dozen service members.

James, who served multiple tours in Iraq, has said the state would benefit from his perspective as a “combat veteran” in the Senate and highlights his service often in his bid to become the first Republican to win a Senate race in Michigan since 1994.

Similarly, Trump’s 2016 victory in Michigan made him the first Republican presidential nominee to carry the state since 1988. Democrats saytheywere caught sleeping last time, but the Michigan Democratic Party is ramping up earlier this cycle to boost both Peters and the party’s eventual nominee. They’ve had a coordinated campaign director on the ground since January and have 12 organizers building the early field program.

“We woke up after the 2016 election realizing we as a party didn’t do all we should have done to help lay the groundwork for that election and vowed to never be caught flat-footed again,” said Lavora Barnes, the state party chair.

Barnes, like other Peters allies, praised his low-key nature but said it’ll take work to boost his name ID across the state. She said he doesn’t need to be “loud” to get his message across.

“Similar to the people who vote for the attention-getters because they feel like they’re just telling it like it is, there is a reverse attraction for voting for somebody who just seems really normal, really kind of like a guy next door,” said Lisa Canada, a Peters ally and the political director of the local carpenters union.

But Saul Azunis, the former state GOP chairman, said Peters lacks the close connection with the state’s swing voters to elevate him above the election-year noise. “There’s no deep perception to who he is,” Azunis said.

Peters faced the same questions in 2014, when he easily defeated the twice-elected secretary of state, who was seen as formidable but flopped as a candidate — even as Democrats were routed across the country.

“They’ve used that argument before,” Peters said, rattling off his victories in tough conditions in every cycle since 2008. “They should know how that story ends.”

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