In the battle for control of the U.S. Senate in 2020, Republicans got some welcome news Thursday when Republican John James announced that he would challenge Democratic Sen. Gary Peters in Michigan’s Senate race. With the GOP defending 22 of the 34 seats that will be up in 2020, the party could really use more opportunities to go on the offensive — and the Michigan race may be just that.
Why is James’s candidacy notable? Well, the businessman and Army veteran ran for the state’s other Senate seat in 2018 and outperformed expectations against longtime Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow, losing by only 6.5 percentage points. In the context of the 2018 cycle, this was the GOP’s seventh-best performance, according to a simple regression analysis that predicts a Senate race’s result by looking at the partisan lean of each state (how much more Democratic- or Republican-leaning the state is than the country as a whole1) and whether an elected incumbent from either party was running or not.2 That shows us how the actual candidates did compared to the baseline expectations for a generic candidate from that party:
|Margin of victory or defeat|
The only Republicans who did better than James in races that were at least somewhat competitive (races our model rated as anything less than “solid” for either party) were Rick Scott in Florida and Bob Hugin in New Jersey, though Hugin was likely aided by Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez’s scandals. During the campaign, James attracted support from top Republicans, including President Trump. James’s showing immediately put him on 2020 candidates-to-watch lists, and Peters’s seat seemed like a likely target.
Speaking of the incumbent, Peters could be vulnerable — in particular, more vulnerable than Stabenow was. First, he’s defending one of just two Democratic Senate seats that will be up in 2020 in states that Trump carried in 2016. (Alabama is the other.) The president only won Michigan by a whisker, but if Trump can keep the state in play next year, that would probably help down-ballot Republicans — Senate contests increasingly align with presidential races when they’re on the ballot at the same time. In 2016, for the first time in a presidential cycle,3 every Senate race went for the same party that carried the state at the presidential level.
Second, Peters remains fairly unknown to his fellow Michiganders. In the first three months of 2019, 43 percent said they had no opinion of Peters — the largest share for any senator — according to Morning Consult’s job-approval data. Although Peters’s net approval rating was +10, his relative anonymity might make it easier for Republicans to define him negatively. His voting record is more conservative than that of many other Democrats in the Senate, but he has voted in line with Trump less often than the partisan lean of Michigan would predict.
Still, Peters shouldn’t be underestimated. He first won this seat in 2014 by a margin of 13 percentage points, successfully retaining it for Democrats despite a Republican wave environment that saw the GOP gain nine seats in the Senate. Peters also has a history of winning tough contests. Besides the 2014 campaign, which was initially viewed as competitive, he also won an incumbent-vs.-incumbent House primary in 2012 after being redistricted from the suburbs into a Detroit-centered seat where then-Rep. Peters, who is white, prevailed in a majority-black district against Rep. Hansen Clarke, who has a mixed-race background (his mother is black and his father was an Indian immigrant).
Election handicappers agree that the Michigan race favors the Democrats, though there is some disagreement as to how much. With James in the race, the Cook Political Report and Inside Elections rate the contest as “likely” to go Democratic, but Sabato’s Crystal Ball says the race only “leans” toward the Democrats. Peters starts as a favorite, but James gives Republicans a real chance of winning Michigan’s Senate race in 2020.