GOP Senate nominee John James (left) and Sen. Gary Peters (D-Bloomfield Twp.) (right) | Getty Images and Andrew Roth

As Election Day approaches, Michigan’s U.S. Senate race has become one of the most closely watched in the nation, as it could be the key to which party controls the body in January.

The battle between U.S. Sen. Gary Peters (D-Bloomfield Twp.) and GOP nominee John James also has shattered fundraising records, as total spending could top $100 million. But in an interesting twist, many of the candidates’ ads don’t mention their party.

Health care has emerged as a key issue in the race — specifically the future of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and whether pre-existing conditions coverage will remain protected, as they are in the seminal legislation quarterbacked by the Obama administration. More than 4 million Michiganders have pre-existing conditions like diabetes, heart disease and cancer.

During an interview with WDIV-TV in Detroit that aired on Oct. 18, James did not answer the question posed by host Devin Scillian about whether he had a plan to fix or replace ACA. 

“So, so, here’s the thing,” said James, who appeared to be caught off guard by the question. “I’m not a politician.”

GOP U.S. Senate candidate John James at the President Donald Trump rally in Battle Creek, Dec. 18, 2019 | Andrew Roth

James favors repealing the ACA, but he has run ads saying he supports keeping protections for pre-existing conditions, noting his son has asthma, without saying how. There’s currently a case before the U.S. Supreme Court backed by the President Trump administration that would overturn the law.

On the same broadcast, but in a separate interview, Peters, who voted for the ACA as a congressman, said he continues to support the law and wants to “expand the access but deal with the [prescription] cost.” Peters backs legislation allowing those 50 to 64 to buy into Medicare.

“Make sure that we’re fixing what’s not working right and celebrate what works,” Peters said. 

One way to do that, Peters said, is to allow the Medicare system to negotiate price with pharmaceutical firms. 

Gary Peters | Andrew Roth

Where the race stands

Peters has a 5 percentage point lead, 48.6% to 43.4%, over James, according to the conservative Real Clear Politics site. 

That’s closer than the race for president in Michigan, where Democratic nominee Joe Biden holds a 7.5-point lead over President Donald Trump.

National handicappers like the Cook Report classify the Michigan Senate seat as “Lean Democrat” and FiveThirtyEight gives Peters a 79 in 100 shot of being reelected.

Republicans currently hold a 53-47 voting advantage over Democrats in the U.S. Senate. While the GOP is playing defense in big races in Colorado, Iowa, Maine, North Carolina and more, Michigan and Alabama may hold the strongest promise for Republicans to flip seats and keep the majority. 

This isn’t James’ first rodeo. Two years ago, the Farmington Hills businessman sought to unseat U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Lansing). Stabenow, a three-term incumbent, defeated him 52% to 46%. 

However, the closer-than-expected result gave Republicans hope that he could knock Peters off this year. 

The nonprofit Michigan Campaign Finance Network (MCFN) projects the total cost of the 2020 race will exceed $100 million this election cycle — shattering the record for a Senate seat in Michigan — based on a compilation of Federal Election Commission (FEC) filings, ad tracking data from Advertising Analytics and Facebook disclosures. The Peters and James campaigns plan to spend more than $35 million on broadcast advertising. 

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The 2018 race between James Stabenow was about $40 million. 

MCFN has identified more than 40 outside groups that have collectively spent at least $50 million thus far in the race, according to a combination of Federal Election Commission and Advertising Analytics spending data that encompasses spending beyond advertising. 

“Most of the outside money has been spent on advertising, but for the groups that do report their spending, the ways they can act like a shadow campaign become apparent,” MCFN wrote in its analysis. “Nearly $8 million has been spent attacking Peters and $2.5 million attacking James, all by outside groups.”

Peters has raised a total of $43 million through Oct. 15, per the FEC. He has $3.9 million left in the bank. James collected a total of $33.9 million and has $8.8 million cash on hand.

Peters and James, who are both veterans, will not have a formal debate because the candidates could not agree on terms. But they did participate in separate interviews for both WDIV this month and an event sponsored by the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce in September

In the 2018 election, James noted his “2,000%” support for Trump. He appeared with Trump at a December 2019 rally in Battle Creek, but this time around, James rarely mentions the president. He skipped Trump’s Muskegon rally on Saturday.

“This race is not about the president,” the Detroit News reported James said in May. He later added, “This race is about Michigan.”

For this campaign, James has been stressing his business credentials and often doesn’t mention that he’s a Republican in ads.

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“Building on Opportunity Zones in the administration’s landmark Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 there should be full support of Senator Tim Scott’s [R-S.C.] proposal to let state and local governments use the census tract to change opportunity zones to help those in need,” James’ website reads.

Meanwhile, Peters’ campaign has focused on presenting him as a bipartisan lawmaker focused on results. His campaign website doesn’t mention that he is a Democrat; nor do many of his TV ads. 

In September, the Peters campaign issued a press release touting that he had been endorsed by Sterling Heights Mayor Michael Taylor, a Republican who voted for James in 2018. 

This week, Peters has released a TV ad that does feature popular Democratic former President Obama, who said Peters “had my back” when he was in office. 

James’ campaign did not respond to a request for an interview. Andrew “Rocky” Raczkowski, a former state lawmaker and Oakland County Republican Party chair, believes that James best represents the values of his home county.  

“I think James is outperforming all the candidates in Oakland County,” said Raczkowski who challenged Peters for the U.S. House seat in a heated campaign in 2010. “He’s the man who will fight for us.”  

Peters spokesperson Vanessa Valdivia called Peters an “effective, bipartisan leader” and said James has offered “false attacks, empty rhetoric and no solutions.”  

“He’s [Peters] focused on issues that matter to working families across the state — like health care protections for people with pre-existing conditions, expanding opportunities for skills training and defending our Great Lakes.” 

COVID-19, racial justice and other issues

If elected, James would be the second Black Republican to join the Senate, along with Scott. 

He also would achieve something that neither longtime Michigan Secretary of State Richard Austin, a Democrat, nor Keith Butler, a Republican, could and become Michigan’s first Black U.S. senator. Neither even secured their party’s nomination in 1976 and 2006, respectively.  

At the Detroit chamber forum, James said that America was on the brink of civil war.

“I recognize that this country, looking at some stats, if you look at one to 100, with 100 being close to a civil war … we’re almost three-quarters of the way there,” James said. “I think that having leadership who is used to having nonpartisan solutions both in the military and in business, being raised by two Democrats in the Jim Crow South, being an independent thinker, not owned by any party, or process, I think that that’s the best way to go.”

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James has portrayed himself as a “unifier” in his ads, including one after George Floyd, an African American man, was killed at the hands of Minneapolis police in May. James described the act as “a cowardly act of evil” but also denounced rioters as “criminal.” A recent study found that 97% of Michigan Black Lives Matter protests were peaceful.

On the issue of police reform, James has called for increased police funding, more officer training, implementing community policing and hiring more officers from communities where they serve as opposed to defunding police as some activists have advocated. 

Earlier this year, Scott sponsored legislation that stopped short of banning chokeholds and establishing independent review into police-involved use of deadly force. James lifted up the Scott legislation at the Detroit Chamber forum. The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, NAACP, National Action Network, American Federation of Teachers, AFL-CIO, League of Women Voters and National Education Association opposed the bill. 

Peters criticized Senate Republicans for not passing what he characterized as meaningful reforms. He has called for more transparency and accountability for officers and police departments, including a way to keep track of officers who act improperly so they can’t move from department to department. In addition, Peters supports government creating incentives for those who join law enforcement in their communities or those who choose to live in the communities they police. 

“This is a moment that demands working together to craft legislation that takes effective action, has broad bipartisan support and can overwhelmingly pass the Senate — and I remain committed to partnering on such an effort,” Peters said at the time. 

Peters, who is white, boasts some significant support in the African-American community, a key Democratic Party constituency. Peters has earned the support of key Black clergy, including the Rev. Steve Bland Jr.; president of the influential Council of Baptist Pastors, Detroit and Vicinity; the Rev. Wendell Anthony, pastor of the Fellowship Chapel and president of the nonpartisan Detroit Branch NAACP; and the Rev. QuanTez Pressley, a millennial who is pastor of Third New Hope Baptist Church.  

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Peters also has been endorsed by the Michigan Chronicle, the state’s largest Black newspaper founded in 1936. It has endorsed both hundreds of labor-backed candidates, as well as Republicans like former Govs. John Engler and Rick Snyder, and described its decision for Senate as “not even close.” 

“In this moment of the Black Lives Movement, racial reckoning and demands for social justice, James’ bizarre ambivalence about Black civil rights – even refusing to support the strengthening and renewal of the John Lewis Voting Rights Restoration Act and denying voter suppression is profoundly problematic,” its editorial read. “It puts him squarely at odds both morally and politically, with most African Americans on an issue that is foundational to the Black community.”

Stabenow told the Advance that Peters better supports issues of importance to African Americans, such as disparities in health care, criminal justice and business development. 

“There’s a huge difference,” Stabenow said. “I don’t see John James speaking out on those issues.” 

The COVID-19 pandemic also has loomed large in the campaign. James has accused Peters of ignoring coronavirus early on. Peters, however, in March voted to support the bipartisan $2.2 trillion CARES Act that funded relief to individuals, schools and businesses.  

Peters has urged the GOP-led Senate “to stop dragging their feet” and approve another stimulus known as the $3 trillion HEROES Act that the Democrat-led U.S. House approved in May. Negotiations between the White House, Democratic House and GOP Senate have been at a stalemate for months.

Laura Cox, Michigan Republican Party chair, ripped Peters on Thursday for his no vote on a GOP-sponsored $500 billion coronavirus relief bill in the Senate. Senate Democrats argued that the measure did not provide enough help. 

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“Gary Peters was sent to Washington by Michigan families to stand up for them and nothing else,” Cox said in a statement. “Because of the havoc created by COVID-19, Michigan families needed Peters today more than ever, but he let them down – serving Democrat leadership over families in need. Because of Gary Peters, bills will go unpaid, medicine will not be purchased, and schools will go without necessary funding. Though he will still receive two government paychecks and exclusive health care. If Peters was known for nothing before today, that certainly will change going forward.”

The Supreme Court has emerged as a late issue in the campaign, as Trump has nominated conservative Judge Amy Coney Barrett to fill the vacancy created by the death of liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Democratic activists argue that another Trump pick to the nation’s high court will further erode the Voting Rights Act and deliver a blow to women’s reproductive rights by striking down Roe v. Wade

Peters does not believe the Senate should take up a nomination until after a new presidential term begins in January. 

James tweeted in September that he believes that Amy Coney Barrett, President Donald Trump’s nominee, is “an accomplished and well-respected legal mind with an objectively brilliant career. I wish her a respectful and dignified hearing.” 

Disclosure: Ken Coleman worked for Peters as press secretary in 2012. 

Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman covers Southeast Michigan, economic justice and civil rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on black life in Detroit, including Soul on Air: Blacks Who Helped to Define Radio in Detroit and Forever Young: A Coleman Reader. His work has been cited by the Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, History Channel and CNN. Additionally, he was an essayist for the award-winning book, Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies. Ken has served as a spokesperson for the Michigan Democratic Party, Detroit Public Schools, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters and U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence. Previously to joining the Advance, he worked for the Detroit Federation of Teachers as a communications specialist. He is a Historical Society of Michigan trustee and a Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit advisory board member.