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After serving three terms in the U.S. House, Democrat Gary Peters won this open seat in 2014 with 55 percent to 41 percent for former Republican Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land. This was supposed to be among the most competitive races of the cycle, but Land proved to be a weak candidate. But, as Peters gears up to run for a second term next year, Republicans believe that he is very vulnerable, citing polling that shows that the incumbent is not very well known and thus undefined in the minds of voters.
Peters had careers in banking and education before politics became a full-time job. He worked as an assistant vice president at Merrill Lynch from 1980 until 1989 when he joined UBS/Paine Webber as a vice president. In 2003, he left banking to become the commissioner of the Michigan Lottery. After leaving that post in 2007, he taught at Central Michigan University.
Peters got his start in politics in 1990 when he won a seat on the Rochester Hills City Council. In 1994, he won a seat in the state Senate that he held until 2002. In 2008, Peters ran against then-GOP U.S. Rep. Joe Knollenberg in what was the 9th congressional district. The district included Southfield and West Bloomfield, and had a Partisan Voting Index of D+1, meaning that it voted one point more Democratic than the nation as a whole. Since 2008 was a very good year for Democrats nationally, it wasn’t a big surprise that Peters beat Knollenberg, 52 percent to 43 percent, in such a marginal district. President Obama carried the district with 56 percent, one point lower than his 57-percent performance statewide.
Given how competitive the district was, Republicans targeted Peters in 2010. His GOP challenger was state Rep. Rocky Raczkowski. While it was a good year for Republicans nationally, Raczkowski struggled to raise money and was tripped up by comments he made questioning Obama’s citizenship. It still ended up being a close contest; Peters won that race, 50 percent to 47 percent.
Michigan lost a House seat in redistricting in 2011 and Peters found himself in the same district as freshman U.S. Rep. Hansen Clarke. The two faced off in a 2012 primary, along with then-Southfield Mayor Brenda Lawrence (Lawrence won the seat when Peters vacated it two years later). In many ways, the new 14th district favored Clarke. It includes minority areas of metro Detroit and Pontiac, as well as the majority-white areas of Gross Pointe and Hamtramck. The result is a district with a population that is 57-percent African American. The 14th CD has a PVI of D+30. President Obama carried it in 2012 with 81 percent of the vote; Hillary Clinton took 79 percent in 2016. In other words, the district isn’t exactly tailor-made for a white banker from the suburbs. But, Clarke and Lawrence, both African American, split the black vote, creating an opening for Peters. He won the primary with 47 percent, and the general election with 78 percent of the vote.
The moral of the story here is that Peters has seen his share of competitive races and does know how to win them. At the same time, even Democrats agree that the incumbent hasn’t made much of an impression on voters during his tenure in the U.S. Senate. Polling seems to support this. According to a Market Resource Group survey (October 7-10 of 600 likely voters), 20 percent had a positive view of Peters, compared to 15 percent who had negative feelings; 30 percent were neutral. Peters’ name identification was 75 percent.
The presumptive Republican nominee is John James. James, 38, graduated from the U.S. Military Academy West Point in 2004 and spent eight years in the military as an Army Ranger-qualified pilot who flew Apache helicopters during the Iraq War. James has a Master’s degree from Penn State in supply chain management and information systems, and an M.B.A. from the University of Michigan. In 2012, he joined the family business, James Group International, a global supply chain management services company, where he now serves as president.
James was the GOP’s U.S. Senate nominee in 2018. He got very little attention last cycle, and yet managed to raise $12.7 million, and take 46 percent to 52 percent for Democratic U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow. According to GOP strategists, Peters begins the cycle in a considerably weaker position than Stabenow was last cycle.
In the Marketing Resource Group poll, 22 percent had a positive impression of James, compared to 10 percent who had a negative impression of him; 21 percent were neutral. His name identification was 64 percent.
If fundraising is any indication of how competitive a race will become, Democrats have to be a bit disheartened by the 3Q FEC reports. James outraised Peters, taking in nearly $3.1 million to $2.5 million. Peters had more money in the bank as of September 30. He finished the quarter with $6.3 million to $3.8 million for James.
Democrats argue that Peters has some work to do, but point to their electoral successes in 2018 when they won the Governor’s, Attorney General’s and Secretary of State’s offices and picked up a U.S. House seat as indicators that Peters is in better shape than Republicans believe. They also argue that President Trump has a much weaker profile now than he did when he eked out a narrow three-tenths of a point victory in 2016. According to a Target Insyght poll for MIRSNews (September 25-26 of 804 registered voters, Trump’s job approval ratings were 40-percent excellent/good to 56-percent just fair/poor.
We have become somewhat disillusioned with state polls given our experience in 2016 and 2018, but it’s worth pointing out the two most recent ballot tests in this race. In the Marketing Resources Group’s survey, Peters had a three-point edge over James, 43 percent to 40 percent. In the Target Insyght poll, Peters was ahead of James by 16 points, 53 percent to 37 percent. The first poll will have James supporters arguing for a Toss Up rating, while the latter survey would suggest leaving it in the Likely Democrat column for now.
We are going to split the difference, putting it in the Lean Democrat column since we believe that this is a competitive race. Whether it makes it to the Toss Up column remains to be seen, and may rely on Republicans’ ability to define Peters before he can define himself.
Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call via AP Images