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Trump won Michigan in 2016. Does that matter for Gary Peters in 2020?

Peters is one of just two Democratic senators facing re-election in a Trump state

Michigan Sen. Gary Peters is one of two Democratic senators up for re-election in a state President Donald Trump carried in 2016. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Michigan’s Gary Peters doesn’t typically attract a lot of attention. 

But as one of only two Democratic senators up for re-election in states that President Donald Trump carried in 2016, the mild-mannered Peters might find himself in the spotlight next year.

Republicans see the ranking Democrat on the Homeland Security Committee as an undefined incumbent.

“40% of Michiganders wouldn’t be able to pick their junior Senator out of a line-up, and only a third approve of the job he’s doing,” Kevin McLaughlin, the executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said in a recent email, citing Morning Consult data from last fall.

Peters’ re-election will be held up as a test of whether the 2016 election represented, as some have suggested, a political realignment that threatens down-ballot Democrats in presidential years or whether Democratic success across Michigan in 2018 spells trouble for a Republican Senate nominee running on the same ticket as Trump.

The only other Democrat in a Trump state this cycle, newcomer Doug Jones, is facing a much more daunting re-election in Alabama. Peters is in an entirely different category. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates his race Likely Democratic.  

Also watch: First 2020 Senate race ratings are here

That Democrats have so few incumbents in tough spots this cycle is a reflection of the bloodbath they suffered in 2014, when five of their incumbents lost. Peters was the only Democrat in that year’s freshman class.

survey conducted last week by the Lansing-based Glengariff Group found that about 36 percent of likely Michigan voters had never heard of Peters. But his job approval and favorability ratings remained solidly above water.

“As an incumbent, he’s done a fairly good job,” Michigan GOP consultant Saul Anuzis said of Peters. “But Michigan is a purple state that goes red under the right circumstances.”

The question is whether 2020 will present those circumstances. 

Republicans have their own Senate seats to defend this cycle — 22 to the Democrats’ 12 — and it’s not yet clear who will challenge Peters. Two years ago, intrigue about the Michigan Senate race was all about whether Kid Rock was running. Turns out he wasn’t. All eyes now are on the 2018 GOP nominee John James, an African-American Army veteran who came closer than expected to knocking off Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow last fall.

A Trump state?

Trump’s victory in the Wolverine State was surprising, but hardly resounding. He won by less than half a point. But after Democrats swept statewide offices and flipped two GOP-held House seats last fall, many in the party are optimistic that 2018 is a better reflection of where the state is headed than 2016 was.

Trump spoke to a real populist hunger in the state, Democrats acknowledge, but no one expects another Democratic presidential nominee to ignore the state like Hillary Clinton did.

“Most folks will agree that it’s very difficult for a Democrat to be president of the United State if you don’t win Michigan,” Peters said in an interview on the Senate subway last week.

“I would expect that Michigan will be hotly contested in the presidential race — that’s why the Senate race will also be a very high-profile national one,” he added.

Peters spoke with pride about his constituents being ticket-splitters — “because of their Midwestern independent streak,” he said.

It’s possible Trump wins again, and Peters holds on. But that ticket-splitting could work the other way, too.

“It’s a race we need to be paying a lot of attention to,” said one Democratic operative with experience in the state. “Stabenow’s numbers showed it’s still a real purple state.”

Stabenow won 52 percent to 46 percent against James, who’d aligned closely with Trump.

But the president’s approval rating has slipped in Michigan since 2016.

“If the Republican nominee is one who’s tied closely to Trump, and those numbers continue to head in a downward direction, then Gary’s going to have an easier race,” GOP consultant Dennis Darnoi said. “But if it’s a Republican candidate who’s willing to chart his or her own path, then it could be a competitive race.”

A good sign of Peters’ perceived vulnerability will be just how many Republicans line up to run against him. Besides James, GOP strategists mention a handful of other potential candidates including businessman Sandy Pensler, who lost last cycle’s GOP Senate nomination to James, and former state House Speaker Tom Leonard, last year’s defeated GOP nominee for state attorney general.

Tough races

Peters’ first task, though, is to deter a Democratic primary challenger.

His support last year of rollbacks to the Dodd-Frank banking regulations (which Stabenow also backed) angered progressives. But unless physician Abdul El-Sayed, who fell short in his bid for the 2018 Democratic gubernatorial nomination, launches a challenge, there’s no obvious candidate to threaten Peters in a primary. Still, Democrats expect Peters will try to turn in impressive early fundraising quarters, in part, to keep challengers from both parties at bay.

Despite winning his first Senate election by a seemingly comfortable 13 points, Peters is no stranger to tough races, even against other Democrats.

He first came to Congress in 2008 by defeating an eight-term Republican incumbent. That was a good Democratic year, and he benefited from Barack Obama’s strength in the state. Two years later, Peters was one of just a few Democratic freshmen who voted for the 2010 health care law and survived the midterms. In 2012, after Republicans eliminated his seat, he ran against Rep. Hansen Clarke in the primary, winning a Detroit-anchored, majority African-American district. 

The 2014 Senate race wasn’t a cakewalk either. Although former Michigan Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land ended up trailing in most public polling throughout the fall and the NRSC pulled its TV reservations, Peters had to work to expand his name ID — which still isn’t as high as he’d like —  and combat an onslaught of outside Republican money.

A financial adviser for most of his life, Peters tried to convey a man-of-the-people image with a motorcycle tour and TV spot in which his family complained about his frugality. The ad ends with the senator showing off the holes in his sweater and shoes.

Expect to see similar themes from the senator in the 2020 campaign.

“We’ll be prepared to run an aggressive race — the way I’ve always run,” Peters said.

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