John James challenges Gary Peters for another run at U.S. Senate

Republican John James already made waves two years ago when he challenged Debbie Stabenow for the U.S. Senate. Now he’s taking on Democrat Gary Peters for Michigan’s other Senate seat.

On Nov. 3 Michigan voters will decide between James, a businessman and combat veteran, and Peters, a first-term Senator running for reelection for the first time.

As an elected official, Peters has the edge with almost 30 years as an elected official. The incumbent Senator ran for his first office in 1991 when he served on the Rochester Hills City Council. From there, he was a state senator for 8 years before being appointed to the Michigan Lottery Commission.

In 2008, he ran for and won Michigan’s 9th Congressional District for the U.S. House of Representatives and served there for six years until 2014 when he ran for and won the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Carl Levin. 

James, meanwhile, is viewed as a political outsider. The Detroit native attended West Point and served eight years in the U.S. Army where he participated in multiple tours of duty during Operation Iraqi Freedom as an Apache pilot. In 2012, he joined his father’s company, James Group, a global supply chain management company, as director of operations. 

Five years later, James announced he was running for Senate. After receiving an endorsement from President Donald Trump, he won the GOP primary with 55% of the vote. In November 2018, he surprised many by making the race against Debbie Stabenow closer than many expected when he garnered almost 46% of the vote.

James was named a front-runner for the 2020 Senate race against Peters and did not receive any challengers for the Republican nomination. 

James said this vote is a chance to get better representation in Washington for Michigan and says Peters hasn’t done enough.

“What matters the most is that the people see the opportunity they have to get better representation and more experience in Washington,” James said.

The two men differ on a number of issues with Peters laying blame for the nation’s coronavirus response at the feet of Trump, as many Democrats in Washington have.

James, meanwhile, says that the state of the nation is not due to one man. 

"I believe that right now one of the biggest reasons we’re in this situation as a nation is because the people who we trusted to prepare us for this pandemic, to protect us, failed in their duties," James told FOX 2 in October.

Critics of James, including the Michigan Democratic Party, have often cited James’ statement in 2018 that he supports Trump “2000%”. 

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 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 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 has been buoyed by Biden's favorable numbers in the state. Estimates from FiveThirtyEight, a polling aggregator that averages surveys of state and presidential election races, has Peters up by seven points. 

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 groups largely back both Biden and Peters, but a bigger percentage remain undecided in the Senate race, according to some polls.

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 voted 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.

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.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.