When this bizarro political year dawned, the Republican National Committee saw just two states as particularly ripe for flipping Democrat-held Senate seats: Alabama and Michigan. Alabama is a gimme because Democratic Sen. Doug Jones won the seat in the deep-red South mainly by facing a Republican, Roy Moore, who had been accused of sexual misconduct with underage girls.
And Michigan? Well, how hard could it be to unseat Sen. Gary Peters, a 61-year-old incumbent so milquetoast that 36 percent of Michigan voters said they’d never heard of him? Especially when the GOP had succeeded in recruiting 2018 Senate nominee John James, a handsome 39-year-old war hero and successful businessman, to have another go at it. James came within 7 points of beating the ubiquitous and well-liked Sen. Debbie Stabenow two years ago, so he seemed poised to dismantle someone as invisible as Peters.
Yet as the calendar hurtles toward November, James is running a peculiar race. He’s kept pace with Peters in fundraising — James was at $20.5 million and Peters at $21.6 million by midsummer — but the campaign itself amounts to yard signs, email fundraising solicitations, and a baffling mishmash of awkward feel-good biographical TV ads and grainy-footage attack ads. As of early September, the challenger had refused to be interviewed at length since the primary by any major news outlet other than Fox News, eschewing free media exposure in a year when the pandemic has largely cut off most other traditional forms of retail politicking. (James did speak to a few local outlets since this piece was published, but continues to decline to be interviewed by Hour Detroit.)
“Maybe they’ve read the tea leaves, realized the folly of the timing of 2020, and are positioning him for something else,” says Jeff Timmer, a former Michigan Republican Party chairman who is now a co-founder of the anti-Trump political action committee The Lincoln Project. “It could be something as simple as the next Michigan Republican Party chairmanship; it could be a move toward the RNC chairmanship. Whatever they’re doing, there is a strategy behind it. It has nothing to with the U.S. Senate race.”
The James campaign declined to make the candidate available for an interview. As of early September, the Real Clear Politics polling average had Peters ahead by 4.7 points, about half of Stabenow’s winning margin in 2018, so James’ candidacy is far from dead. And GOP political strategist Dan McMaster says he’s been surprised to see an impressive number of James yard signs in his central Michigan region. But McMaster fails to understand why, then, James is not using media opportunities to reach the white swing voters in the suburbs whom he must court to win statewide.
“Is he afraid of answering questions? Is he afraid of tripping up on something? It’s weird,” says McMaster, whose bipartisan consultancy Grassroots Midwest is not working on the race.
James’ TV ad campaign thus far may offer clues. Where James appears, he’s largely offering pieces of his personal story and leaving out any policy proposals or even any indication that he’s a Republican. Peters and his allies, meanwhile, have relentlessly hammered James as a major Trump fan — James once tweeted that he supported the president “2,000 percent” — in a moment when Trump has high job disapproval ratings in Michigan. He spoke at the Republican National Convention in August, but good luck finding footage of it online because it’s not on his campaign site and doesn’t even come up when his name is searched on c-span.org.
“He’s tried to thread the needle very carefully between being Trumpy enough to keep the Republican base from turning on him, yet trying to be un-Trumpy enough to win in a state like Michigan where you need a coalition a hell of a lot bigger than the base,” Timmer says.
Bill Ballenger, a former Republican state senator turned political analyst, bridles at the notion that James is the only candidate being especially cautious. Peters, too, hasn’t given many interviews and is relying primarily on TV advertising. “Yes, Peters is the incumbent, but guess what? He’s the least known senator out of 100 in the U.S. Senate,” Ballenger says. “You’d think he’d want to do everything he can to build up his exposure, but he’s doing it pretty much the way James is — through paid media, through ads.”
Yet Peters has incumbency and Biden’s popularity on his side, and the political risk of losing would be more damaging for James, given he could soon have lost two statewide elections in two years, Timmer says. McMaster agrees: “It’s pretty hard when you’re a two-time loser, because the only thing worse than a two-time loser is a three-time loser.”