Peters victorious over James in Michigan's U.S. Senate race

Leonard N. Fleming
The Detroit News

After falling behind by double digits deep into the night, Democratic U.S. Sen. Gary Peters surged ahead Wednesday and was victorious in the battle for Michigan's prized Senate seat.

Peters was up 49.6% to James' 48.5% with 98% of precincts reporting unofficial results for the contested Senate race after erasing the substantial lead held by Republican rival John James.

"I am sincerely honored that the voters of Michigan have once again put their trust and confidence in me to represent them in the United States Senate," Peters said in a statement.

"As we look ahead, I am energized to keep working to move our state forward and continue putting Michigan first.” 

The race began tightening after 3 a.m. Wednesday, and by Wednesday night, nearly 60,000 votes separated the candidates. 

The evaporation of James' lead prompted immediate scorn from President Donald Trump. "Wow! It looks like Michigan has now found the ballots necessary to keep a wonderful young man, John James, out of the U.S. Senate. What a terrible thing is happening!" the president tweeted Wednesday afternoon.

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.

Peters, 61, of Bloomfield Township is one of two Democratic senators running for reelection in states that Trump won in 2016.

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.

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. 

In a livestream message late Tuesday from his outside headquarters in Pontiac, the junior senator said it was clear that a decision on the race would likely come later Wednesday. He praised the high turnout in the election.

James, 39, of Farmington Hills, who built his name recognition on a previous Senate run two years ago and millions more raised this election, acknowledged after midnight Wednesday that despite his early lead, many votes had yet to be counted.

The Army helicopter pilot and Iraq War veteran addressed his supporters and thanked them for their support even without a decision yet in hand. He did promise "we are going to be here to the very end. We are not going to go to sleep on Michigan."

James was 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.

"Two years ago, this race was called at 9:30, and right now, right now, early returns have a double-digit lead," James said to cheers from supporters at his headquarters in Detroit. "There are still a lot of votes to be counted to be sure. But we're extremely excited and optimistic about where we stand right now."

James would have 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 have been the first Republican senator to represent the state since U.S. Sen. Spencer Abraham, R-Auburn Hills, lost to Democrat Debbie Stabenow in 2000.

Peters, the first-term Democrat, led in Detroit News-WDIV-TV polls, but James mounted a competitive campaign by raising nearly as much money as the incumbent in what the Michigan Campaign Finance Network projected would become the most expensive political race in Michigan history at more than $100 million.

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.

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.

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.

The senator and Democrats have attacked James for comments he made during the 2018 Republican primary that he supported 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.

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.