James leads Michigan’s U.S. Senate race in early returns

Republican challenger John James was leading Democratic U.S. Sen. Gary Peters with initial votes counted in the race for who will be Michigan’s next senator.

James of Farmington Hills was ahead 58% to 40% Tuesday night in early returns in a contest that might decide whether Republicans keep control of the Senate or Democrats win the majority.

Peters, 61, of Bloomfield Township is one of two Democratic senators running for reelection in states that President Donald Trump won in 2016. James, 39, is running for the second straight cycle for a six-year senatorial term after losing by a closer-than-expected 6.5 percentage points to senior U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, in 2018.

If James wins, he would become Michigan’s first African American U.S. senator and join U.S. Tim Scott of South Carolina as the first two black male senators for the first time since Reconstruction. He also would become the first Republican senator to represent the state since U.S. Sen. Spencer Abraham, R-Auburn Hills, lost to Democrat Debbie Stabenow in 2000.

Republican U.S. Senate candidate John James draws applause from the crowd at President Donald Trump's rally in Freeland on Thursday, Sept. 10, 2020.

The first-term Democrat has been leading in Detroit News-WDIV-TV polls, but James has mounted a competitive campaign by raising nearly as much money as the incumbent in what the Michigan Campaign Finance Network projected will become the most expensive political race in Michigan history at over $100 million.

The James-Peters matchup has national significance because Democrats hope to retain the seat as they seek to take control from the Senate’s GOP majority. Republicans are hoping to pick up the seat in one of the few states where they aren’t trying to defend an incumbent’s seat.

According to AP VoteCast, a survey of more than 3,300 voters in Michigan conducted for the Associated Press by NORC at the University of Chicago, 45% of Michigan voters said that which party controls the Senate was an important but not the most important factor to them in deciding how to vote for senator, while 42% of those surveyed said it was the single most important factor for them. Eight percent said it was a minor factor, and 5% said it was not a factor at all.

Voters at the polls on Tuesday expressed positives about their Senate choices.

Dinnes McGill, 33, of Wayne, said “I went with Gary Peters. He has more of an idea for (to include) everybody like I do. He has more of a societal vision for how I want things to be, everybody to be equal, make sure everybody has a voice to be heard, women’s rights especially.”

First-time voter Ryan Miller, 19, of Berkley, split his ticket to vote for Democratic presidential challenger Joe Biden and James, contending that while “Gary Peters is a great man, my biggest thing is that he’s been in the Senate for a while and I personally have not seen a very large impact of what he’s done.”

With Michigan being an industrial state, Miller said, James “having a background in that industry can really do us well to revitalize that” from the Senate.

Peters rose to prominence six years ago by defeating Republican former Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land 55%-41% and replacing retiring U.S. Sen. Carl Levin, D-Detroit. He was the only Democratic non-incumbent to get elected during the 2014 Republican wave election.

First-term senators traditionally have close reelection races in Michigan, said Glengariff Group pollster Richard Czuba, who does surveys for The Detroit News and WDIV-TV. But Peters’ bid to win a second, six-year term was initially hampered because voters were not familiar with his background and his record, political experts said.

If Biden does well in Michigan, Peters is likely to win, Czuba said. If Trump wins the state, James is likely to prevail, he said.

The Oct. 23-25 Detroit News-WDIV-TV poll found Peters opening a 10 percentage point lead over the Republican challenger as Biden supporters began backing the Democratic incumbent.

Peters has played up his achievements in a Senate where Democrats are in the minority. He has had eight standalone bills signed into law since he began serving in the Senate in 2015, such as the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance Act and others related to the Great Lakes, agriculture and veterans. 

The senator and Democrats have attacked James for comments he made during the 2018 Republican primary that he supported President Donald Trump “2,000%.” James has said he would respectfully disagree with Trump on policy stances that violate his principles or that run counter to the interests of Michigan residents.

Peters has accused James of having no specific plan to reform the Affordable Care Act and that he couldn’t be trusted to protect pre-existing condition provisions in the federal health care law. James has contended that the senator has backed plans that would hurt health care coverage and has been dishonest about his own health care coverage.

The Trump administration has argued that part of the Affordable Care Act is unconstitutional. The U.S. Supreme Court is set to hear arguments on the court case on Nov. 10.

Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., speaks during an event for Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden at Michigan State Fairgrounds in Novi, Mich., Friday, Oct. 16, 2020.

The businessman and Army veteran also said Peters has lied about his positions on health care, arguing that he wants to keep parts of the Affordable Care Act that work — such as protections for pre-existing conditions — and fix the parts that don’t. He also said he supports a “market-based, patient-centered approach.”

Peters “intentionally lied to the media” about his own health care plan, James said.

Peters’ office told The Detroit News in December 2013 that Peters planned to buy a health care plan on an Affordable Care Act exchange. The campaign provided documentation that Peters was enrolled in an exchange plan in December 2013. 

In an August 2014 disclosure, the incumbent was listed as enrolled in the health plan open only to Michigan’s former state legislators known as the Michigan Legislative Retirement Health Program.

In the closing weeks of the campaign, Peters appeared at Biden rallies while James spoke before Trump’s rallies. In the past week, the senator campaigned in Detroit with controversial Rev. Al Sharpton of New York, while James stumped with former United Nations Ambassador and South Carolina ex-Gov. Nikki Haley in Novi. 

lfleming@detroitnews.com