Opinion: James race against Peters tied to Trump

Dennis Lennox
Michigan Republican candidate for U.S. Senate John James concedes the race to Sen. Debbie Stabenow and thanks his supporters at his election night event at James Group International in Detroit.

We have a race. Finally.

John James ended months of speculation by announcing his candidacy against first-term Democratic Sen. Gary Peters. His name should be familiar since he emerged from a bruising and highly unnecessary Republican primary to unsuccessfully challenge Michigan’s other Democratic senator, Debbie Stabenow, in 2018.

On paper, Peters is as vulnerable as an incumbent gets. The first re-election is always the hardest. Moreover, despite his lengthy career in politics — state Senate, Democratic nominee for attorney general, lottery commissioner and congressman before moving to other side of the Capitol — many Michigan voters don’t know him. 

I have watched Peters quit his gig as lottery commissioner to use a do-nothing professorship to pay the bills while successfully challenging then-Rep. Joe Knollenberg in 2008. For Democrats, he is as good as it gets. If he doesn’t lose next year he will have the seat for as long as he wants.

At the same time, James will have a free pass at the GOP nomination — a rarity for a Senate challenger. Not having a contested primary will allow him to assemble a much better campaign than he had against Stabenow.

Peters finds himself in an increasingly uncomfortable position as the three-ring circus that is the campaign for his party’s presidential nomination pushes Democrats even further to the hard-left. His opposition to President Donald Trump’s tariffs — aimed at protecting blue-collar workers — could hurt him with union workers and retirees.

Ultimately, the 2020 presidential campaign will more likely than not decide if James gets a seat in the upper house of Congress.

Having a strong Senate nominee on ballot alongside Trump could help with voter turnout — a metric Republicans struggled with last year. A good example is St. Clair County (Port Huron), where 12,000 Trump 2016 voters just stayed home.

The electoral battleground will run north from the border with Ohio along I-75 through Monroe County and Downriver Detroit, east on I-94 to I-696 in Macomb County to Port Huron, west on I-69 connecting again with I-75 and north to Bay City and Saginaw. Trump only won because the mostly white, working-class and middle-class voters who live in these parts of the state, combined with very strong numbers in the counties that are reliably Republican, offset losses in voter-rich Oakland County.

At the same time, many Republicans think James, an African American, can siphon off a couple points of the black vote from Peters and Democrats. Look for them to continue wooing voters of color, citing Trump’s criminal justice reforms and the historically low African American unemployment rate.

James and Trump will sink or swim together, especially after what will surely be contentious and divisive Democratic presidential primaries and caucuses.

Dennis Lennox is a political commentator and public affairs consultant.