During the campaign, Stabenow highlighted her bipartisan achievements and experience amid divisiveness in Washington while criticizing James' support for President Donald Trump's agenda. James, a black combat veteran and businessman whom Trump has called "a star," faulted Stabenow as ineffective and too liberal while asking voters to make a leadership change.
The 68-year-old Stabenow, of Lansing, was first elected to the Senate by defeating an incumbent and she easily withstood challenges in 2006 and 2012. Though she consistently led the lesser-known James in polls since his primary victory and kept her message positive in TV ads, he looked to be a tougher challenger than her past opponents.
Trailing by about 6 percentage points with more than half the votes counted, James called Stabneow to concede.
Michigan Republicans have held a Senate seat just once in 40 years, the one Stabenow took in 2000.
As the top Democrat on the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee, she emphasized her ability to shape farming legislation. She also said she stood up to Trump's unsuccessful efforts to slash federal spending on the Great Lakes and sponsored a new law outlawing so-called gag rules that prohibited pharmacists from telling consumers when they could save on prescriptions by paying cash instead of using insurance.
"She's very rural-friendly and that's important to businesses up here, especially cherries and wine," said 26-year-old Tyler Bevier of Traverse City, who works in a local government planning office and said he voted for Stabenow because of her experience. "She seems to be a positive voice for the farming community and is a good influential leader."
James, of Farmington Hills, flew helicopters in the Iraq War before returning to Michigan to help run his family's automotive logistics company in Detroit. He cast himself as a mender of Washington's partisan divide and as someone who could broaden Republicans' appeal to minorities and millennials.
"I like the way he has operated his life," said Lynda Scullion, a 69-year-old part-time parking attendant from Lansing who voted for James while backing Democrat Gretchen Whitmer for governor. "He is a doer. He cares. I just feel like when you look at him and you see what he's done, I can trust him to be honest and fair and responsible."
She said she had voted for Stabenow in the past, but she "has outlived her usefulness."
Though Trump won the state two years ago and James has excited the base, Senate Republicans and outside groups did not prioritize the Michigan race this cycle and focused on other states seen as key to determining control of the Senate. James did raise more money than Stabenow in the final months of the campaign.