McConnell to headline virtual event for Michigan Senate challenger

John James has been nudging closer to Democratic Sen. Gary Peters in recent polls

John James, Michigan GOP Senate candidate, speaks in Detroit on Aug. 7, 2018, at an election night event after winning his primary election. (Getty Images)
John James, Michigan GOP Senate candidate, speaks in Detroit on Aug. 7, 2018, at an election night event after winning his primary election. (Getty Images)
Posted September 16, 2020 at 9:00am

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell plans to log on to a fundraiser Wednesday evening to boost fellow Republican John James, the challenger to Michigan Democratic Sen. Gary Peters, in a race that may be tightening. 

It’s one of the GOP’s top two pickup opportunities in a cycle that is otherwise dismal for the party’s prospects in the Senate, and the race has attracted multimillion-dollar investments from outside groups and prominent donors.

The tab to join the Wednesday fundraiser, with McConnell billed as a “special guest,” is $1,000 a person for a spot on the Zoom event, which benefits the James campaign, according to an invitation obtained by CQ Roll Call.  

Peters is still favored to win reelection, but James has nudged closer in recent public and internal polls, which generally have the incumbent up by less than 5 points, as the campaigns hit a pivotal final stretch toward Election Day. Earlier this summer, Peters held a wider lead in polls. James lost his first bid for a Senate seat in 2018 to Democrat Debbie Stabenow by about 6 percentage points. 

“It’s going to be a tight race,” said former Michigan Rep. Bart Stupak, a Democrat. “I still expect Sen. Peters to do well and win that race.” 

The dueling presidential candidates also may cast a decisive shadow over the Senate race in a state President Donald Trump won in 2016 by a fraction of a percentage point. Polls currently have Trump’s Democratic challenger, former Vice President Joe Biden, ahead. 

Adrian Hemond, a Democratic strategist who runs a bipartisan firm called Grassroots Midwest in Lansing, said James’ fate may be tied to the Trump campaign’s decisions in the final weeks. 

“John James is a quality candidate,” Hemond said. “The issue here is going to be the president. If the presidential campaign has given up, that’s really hard in terms of turning your partisans out.”

James, who is a 39-year-old businessman and former Apache helicopter pilot in the Army, spoke at a recent Trump rally in Freeland, Mich. The Trump campaign held another rally in the state Monday featuring Donald Trump Jr. and singer Kid Rock.

Peters, too, has been out campaigning even during the coronavirus pandemic. The incumbent recently cruised through the state on a motorcycle tour. 

Rallying with Trump

At the Trump rally, James recalled his military service, which took him to Iraq and Afghanistan, and offered his support for police officers and first responders. That’s not an unusual mantra from Republicans, but James also brings his perspective as a Black man.

“I understand what it’s like to be a Black man in this country,” James said during the Sept. 10 rally. “I understand what it feels like to be pulled over in a nice area of Detroit with my son in the back and wonder if this is the day that his son is going to see you bleed out in the street. But I also understand what it's like to be an officer, patrolling areas where people would just as soon see you gone, understand what it takes to leave my family and my loved ones to stand up for people who can’t fight for themselves.”

James also criticized Peters for siding with Democrats in rejecting a policing overhaul bill this summer by South Carolina GOP Sen. Tim Scott, a Black lawmaker, saying Peters voted “against even allowing the bill to come to the floor.”  

For his part, Peters got the endorsement of the Michigan Chronicle, the state’s largest African American newspaper. 

And the incumbent recently wrapped up a five-day motorcycle tour that stretched 1,000 miles, according to his campaign. “Gary met with Michiganders from across the state to discuss his efforts to boost made in Michigan manufacturing, support small businesses, and highlight his proven record of delivering results,” his campaign manager Dan Farough wrote in a memo this week on the state of the race. 

Bruce Burton, who is originally from Grosse Pointe Woods in suburban Detroit but now lives in Virginia, joined his brother on a stretch of the motorcycle tour. Burton, now retired, worked in the Washington, D.C., office of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, one of several unions to endorse Peters.   

“He’s running scared, and I mean that in a good way,” Burton said of the incumbent senator. He added that during his stretch of the motorcycle tour from Warren to Saginaw, Peters spoke to union members and supporters. But the group also encountered some rural spots with Trump flags and Confederate flags, Burton said, adding he found that “disappointing.”   

All that money can buy

Neither campaign has had trouble bringing in political cash.

James has outraised Peters in recent quarters, though Peters had more cash on hand as of mid-July with $11.6 million to James’ $9.2 million. 

McConnell, who has his own reelection campaign in Kentucky against a well-funded challenger in Amy McGrath, hasn’t minced words about his party’s uphill stakes in November. But in a recent interview on Fox News’ “The Daily Briefing,” McConnell called James a “fabulous candidate” and added, “I’m very optimistic about our chances in Michigan.”  

Both James and Peters have benefited from and been attacked by outside groups.

Beginning in mid-August, One Nation, an outside group affiliated with the GOP super PAC Senate Leadership Fund, reserved $4.5 million in television, cable and radio ads against Peters. Outside groups have poured more than $20 million into the race, according to a tabulation by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. 

The barrage of ads, as well as the tightening presidential race in the state, may have moved the Senate contest closer. Michael Traugott, a research professor in the Center for Political Studies at the University of Michigan, said it may also be the result of a shift in tracking registered voters before Labor Day to likely voters heading into the fall. “I don’t think it’s surprising that the race appears to have tightened,” he said. 

Presidential coattails, or headwinds, will also be a factor, he said, adding that in contrast to 2016, Democrats appear more invested in the state.

Traugott noted that political money, including support for James from the state’s DeVos family of GOP donors, has been an issue in the race. 

Michigan Democratic Party spokesperson Elena Kuhn called James “Mitch McConnell and GOP mega donors’ hand-picked candidate.”