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Peters, James offer clashing visions for U.S. Senate

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

The two men fighting to be Michigan's next U.S. senator are increasingly focusing their arguments on why they're the best person to bridge a bitter partisan divide nationally and in the state.

U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, 61, a Democrat from Bloomfield Township, is arguing voters should give him a second six-year term because his record shows he can work across the aisle to deliver results.

"Folks in Michigan are common sense folks who want to see a senator from Michigan go to Washington, find common ground and get things done," Peters said in an interview. "I don’t just talk about it. I demonstrate it."

Republican U.S. candidate John James and incumbent Democratic U.S. Sen. Gary Peters will face off in November 2020.

But John James, 39, a Republican businessman from Farmington Hills, says "bipartisanship" is a "buzz word" that politicians use to make themselves appear less extreme. James says he's looking forward to working with Democratic U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, whom he ran against in 2018.

"Partisans are incapable of governing as we’re seeing quite clearly across our nation," James said.

The policy disagreements between James and Peters are vast, and they'll be in the spotlight over the next three months before the Nov. 3 general election.

Michigan's Senate race could have national repercussions. Peters is one of two incumbent Democrats running in a state that President Donald Trump won in 2016, and Democrats want to keep his seat as they seek to regain control of the Senate from Republicans, who hold a 53-47 advantage. 

“The race is important for Republicans nationally because they’re not really playing offense anywhere,” said Adrian Hemond, CEO of the Lansing-based political consulting firm Grassroots Midwest.

Sen. Gary Peters speaks to the news media outside the Bloomfield Township City Clerk's office after dropping off his ballot on Friday, July 31, 2020.

Peters: Look at my record

In recent weeks, The Detroit News interviewed James and Peters for 30 minutes each. The conversations probed the candidates' diverging positions on health care and the federal government's response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Asked why Michigan voters should send them to Washington, D.C., for six years, both candidates touted their abilities to get things done.

Research from the Center for Effective Lawmaking ranked Peters the fourth most effective Democratic senator over 2017 and 2018; meanwhile, the Lugar Center at Georgetown University ranked him the third most bipartisan Democratic senator for 2019, said Peters, who served in the U.S. House before winning the Senate seat in 2014. 

Sitting outside a coffee shop near his home in Oakland County, Peters said his approach wouldn't change if Democrats take back the Senate. A "seesaw" in major policies as control changes in Washington, D.C., isn't in the best interest of the country, he said.

Sen. Gary Peters rides his motorcycle to the Bloomfield Township City Clerk's office to drop his ballot on Friday, July 31, 2020.

Peters won his first term six years ago by 13 percentage points over Republican former Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land in what turned out to be a national GOP wave election elsewhere. One of his campaign ads from that cycle emphasized his frugality, showing an aged sweatshirt that Peters described as "comfy."

"Look at my record over the years that I have served," Peters said. "I’ve always tried to find common ground. I am not going to change who I am. I think the best solutions for the country are ones where you can come together."

James countered that Peters had voted with his party 95% of the time —  based on a ProPublica compendium of votes in the 2019-20 session that shows the Democrat voting against a majority of Senate Democrats 26 times or 4.5%.

If James is elected, Michigan will have one Democratic senator, Stabenow, a white woman, and one Republican senator, a Black man, which guarantees a "seat at the table" no matter which party is in control, he said. In the military, James said he learned to work with people of all beliefs and, in business, there are no "partisan solutions."

"The way the real world works, we need a friend on both sides of the aisle," James said. "I can bring that and my opponent cannot.”

Asked if he would vote with his party 95% of the time if elected, the GOP challenger didn't provide a direct yes or no answer but said he wouldn't fit in a "red box" or a "blue box." James, whom Democrats have slammed for saying two years ago that he supports Trump's agenda "2,000%," said he would meet with Stabenow once a week if elected.

James proved a more formidable than expected challenger to Stabenow in 2018, losing by 6.5 percentage points after polls showed him trailing by double digits. The first-time candidate outperformed the Republican Party's gubernatorial candidate, then-Attorney General Bill Schuette, by 3 percentage points.

"There may be some things that I’m not able to get through with Chuck Schumer (the Democratic Senate leader), but I bet Sen. Stabenow can," James said. "There are going to be some things that are beneficial for Michigan that she’s not going to be able to get through Mitch McConnell (the GOP leader), but I can."

James: Repeal and replace

Health care has become a key issue in the race with the 2010 Affordable Care Act at the center. Among other things, the federal law expanded access to health care coverage for low-income Americans, required most citizens to have coverage and mandated that insurers cover people regardless of whether they have pre-existing conditions.

In the U.S. House, Peters supported the Affordable Care Act, which Republicans attacked during his first campaign in 2014. As the law has become more popular in public polling, there's been less criticism of the vote ahead of this election while Democratic groups have argued that it's James who is "wrong on health care."

Republican U.S. Senate candidate John James and Vice President Mike Pence pray before eating burgers for lunch at the Engine House restaurant in Mt. Clemens, Mich. on Thursday, June 18, 2020.

Asked for his plan for reforming health care, James said he wants to fix the parts of the Affordable Care Act "that are broken" and keep the parts that aren't, including protecting people with pre-existing conditions.

“You can’t pull the rug out from under people," James said. "You can’t repeal without replace."

The nation's health care system needs regulatory reform to increase transparency and competition in the health care market, allowing for more choice, James said during the phone interview.

He also said there needs to be more funding for mental health and changes on pain management. The current system has led to an over-prescription of opioids, he said.

James criticized Peters, a former state lawmaker and lottery commissioner, for having "a gold-plated" health care plan from his time as a state officeholder while regular people's health care costs have increased.

A financial disclosure for 2018 showed Peters was participating in the "Michigan Legislative Retirement Health Program." But Peters countered that the Affordable Care Act "affects every insurance policy" and "a lot of people in Michigan have private insurance."

The senator, who said he wants to work to lower prescription drug prices, said James is opposed to the Affordable Care Act but "has no idea how to replace it."

The federal law would disappear if the Trump administration is successful in its legal challenge that seeks to strike down the act as unconstitutional. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in May ruled that the individual mandate, a key funding mechanism for the law, is now unconstitutional and asked a lower court to decide whether the rest of the law could survive without the individual mandate.

Responding to pandemic

Both Peters and James were asked what they would tell Michigan residents who are facing financial hardships and the potential loss of their health care coverage during a pandemic that's spurred record unemployment claims.

People have "immediate needs," said Peters, who added he wrote legislation that helped expand unemployment eligibility as the virus spread in Michigan. The senator said he also called on the president to reopen enrollment windows so people can purchase health care on insurance marketplaces.

Peters, the top Democrat on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said he put out a report last year that the nation was too dependent on other countries for medical supplies and argued the Trump administration has been "far too slow" in expanding access to COVID-19 testing and personal protective equipment.

U.S. Sen Debbie Stabenow,  speaks while her Republican challenger John James waits for his turn during their debate Monday before the Detroit Economic Club in 2018.

But James said Peters hadn't done enough to ensure the country was ready for a potential pandemic despite past reports that said the country wasn't prepared. A Republican U.S. senator could help make sure Michigan was getting the resources it needed, the Republican challenger said.

"He’s campaigning on the fact that we were unprepared, and all he has to offer is party-line voting and buzz words like bipartisanship," James said. "I would tell the person who’s hurting right now that he or she deserves better."

The Nov. 3 election is 88 days from Friday, and James faces a challenge. The president has supported James, and Vice President Mike Pence ate lunch with the candidate during a mid-June visit through Macomb County.

Democrats have labeled the Republican as being an unapologetic supporter of Trump. James has argued in a Detroit News interview in May that “when the president is right on what he’s doing for Michigan, I’ll support him. And when I disagree with him, I will let him know. It benefits the state of Michigan to have that perspective and that voice.”

But Democratic presumptive presidential nominee Joe Biden has built a lead over Trump in Michigan in recent polling. For the Republican Iraq War veteran to make the race competitive, he'll need Trump to narrow Biden's lead, said Hemond, who worked for Democrats in the state Legislature and leads the consulting firm Grassroots Midwest.

James will likely run a few percentage points ahead of the support Trump gets in Michigan, Hemond said, but that won't matter if the president loses to Biden by 8 percentage points or more.