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Michigan Democrat fights to hold onto key Senate seat

Michigan Sen. Gary Peters is a rare Democratic target for Republicans this cycle in a state President Trump narrowly won in 2016.
Image: Joe Biden
Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., speaks during an event with Joe Biden at Beech Woods Recreation Center, in Southfield, Mich., on Oct. 16, 2020.Carolyn Kaster / AP

DETROIT — Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., is sounding the alarm on his re-election bid. “Pummeled,” reads the subject line of the freshman Michigan senator’s latest fundraising email to Democratic National Committee members, warning of a “dead heat” and millions in GOP Super PAC spending pouring into his race.

Despite Joe Biden’s polling lead here, Peters’ Senate seat is a rare pickup opportunity for Republicans this cycle in a state President Trump narrowly won in 2016. The political handicappers at the Cook Political Report rank the race as "leaning" toward the Democrat.

“You can’t take anything for granted,” Peters told NBC News, adding he does not feel any more pressure than normal. “It's important for us to hold this seat, I'm running like it's every other campaign I've run.”

Peters' GOP opponent John James, a young, African-American combat veteran and business owner, is considered a rising Republican star. During his first 2018 Senate bid, an uphill battle against popular incumbent Sen. Debbie Stabenow, he was endorsed by President Trump, who James then supported “two thousand percent.”

At a Saturday rally in Muskegon, Trump praised James, telling the crowd, “get out and vote for an outstanding guy.”

“He's running against somebody nobody has ever heard of. Peters? Who the hell is Peters? Nobody ever heard of him,” said Trump.

Despite having served in the senate for six years, Peters has relatively low name recognition and is polling lower than the top of the ticket in his home state. The Real Clear Politics polling average shows Peters leading James by just four percentage points, a lead that extends to seven for Biden.

James, a loyal Trump ally, has balanced his support for the president in this campaign with a pledge for independence.

Asked in a local interview with WDIV-TV Sunday about the Trump administration’s legal attempts to eliminate the Affordable Care Act, James interrupted to note he's not in the Trump administration.

“I'm saying emphatically we must not repeal protections for these with preexisting conditions,” he said.

Peters says the contrast and choice for voters is clear.

“If they're not supporting Donald Trump, that's a vote against something that they think needs to have a change,” he said. “It’s pretty simple. I think it's really simple too, in terms of health care. Here’s a gentleman who basically calls the Affordable Care Act a monstrosity, he thinks it should be repealed, has no plan whatsoever to face it.”

Republican Senate candidate John James speaks during a rally for President Donald Trump at MBS International Airport on Sept. 10, 2020, in Freeland, Mich.
Republican Senate candidate John James speaks during a rally for President Donald Trump at MBS International Airport on Sept. 10, 2020, in Freeland, Mich.Jose Juarez / AP file

In James’ quest to be elected the state’s first Black senator, he has targeted split-ticket voters.

Flint resident Rose Thompson voted for Hillary Clinton and is now interested in Biden, but says she’s certain to back James for Senate.

“Just something about James hit me the right way,” said Thompson of seeing the Republican in television commercials. “(Peters) has been in there for so long and I can’t see where he’s really made too many changes.”

Until last quarter, James routinely outraised Peters in what has become an expensive ad war. According to Advertising Analytics, well over $90 million has been spent on TV, with the Democratic incumbent tying his opponent to a polarizing president, and the GOP challenger painting his rival as embracing a socialist agenda.

The ads stuck with Jalisa Blair, a Black activist from Flint, who is supporting Peters.

“I was just like you're part of Trump, you're for Trump,” she said of James’ embrace of the president. “Trump is not for African Americans if you ask me, clear as day,” she argued. “That’s all I need to hear.”

James declined NBC News’ request for an interview.

“Senator Peters would be less than a speed bump against the leftist move toward anarchy and socialism," James said last week in an interview on Fox News, despite Peters’ opposition to progressive priorities like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal, and his record of working across the aisle.

In the closing weeks of the campaign, Peters has made his policy positions personal. Amid the confirmation hearings of Supreme Court Justice nominee Judge Amy Coney Barrett, Peters became the first sitting U.S. senator to publicly share a personal abortion story.

“I’ve always considered myself pro-choice and believe women should be able to make these decisions themselves, but when you live it in real life, you realize the significant impact it can have on a family,” he said to ELLE Magazine, describing how his then-wife Heidi needed an emergency life-saving abortion in the late 1980s when doctors said her fetus could not survive.

While the attacks continue to fly — including over an inability to agree on having a televised debate — both have emphasized a plea for unity and decency, and it's one that is resonating with some voters.

“It all comes down to that, are they really going to follow through?” said Thompson. “I think James will. Biden, I'm thinking he will because of him being vice president before. He knows what the American people need. And we need to get this country back together again instead of everybody fighting everybody.”