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After winning the Senate, Democrats' campaign chief warns GOP: Trump will continue to drag you down

In an interview with NBC News, Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., reflects on holding his majority in a tough cycle and looks ahead to a Georgia runoff election that could expand it.
Gary Peters at a hearing on Capitol Hill, in Washington
Gary Peters at a hearing on Capitol Hill, in Washington, on March 25, 2021.Anna Moneymaker / The New York Times via AP Pool

WASHINGTON — Days after denying Republicans the Senate majority they fought for in the midterm elections, the Democrats' campaign chief warned the GOP: If former President Donald Trump continues to be your leader, voters will continue to punish you.

“There’s no question that Donald Trump is a motivating factor for turnout when it comes to Democratic voters,” Sen. Gary Peters, of Michigan, said in an interview at Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee headquarters.

And as Trump announces a 2024 presidential run, Peters says his dominance over the GOP will come at a cost — unless Republicans reject the former president, who stirred up a mob that attacked the Capitol, and his brand of politics.

“It depends what the party does. If the party continues to be following the Trump model and is Trumpian and doesn’t go back to their more conservative roots of the traditional Republican Party, I will say, definitely that’ll be a problem,” he said.

Peters entered the 2022 cycle with a daunting task: to preserve the thinnest possible majority in what is typically a losing year for a party in control of the White House and Congress, a task made even more daunting this year by a president underwater in his approval rating and widespread economic pain throughout the country.

Democrats defied gravity, clinching 50 Senate seats and losing no incumbents. They can make it 51 in the Dec. 6 Georgia runoff if Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock finishes ahead of Republican rival Herschel Walker again, as he did in the general election. The GOP's failure to recapture the Senate has led to recriminations and a dispute about whether Trump was to blame for their underperformance.

“This is historic,” Peters said. “For the party in power in the White House, and given where we are with inflation and other factors, to not lose a seat right now — I believe we will gain a seat — is truly historic.”

Peters insists he never bought in to the GOP boasts of a red wave. He ignored projections that the fundamentals of the midterms would swamp Democratic senators in states like Nevada, Arizona and New Hampshire. “Our numbers were actually pretty consistent,” he said. “We knew we were going in a tough environment.”

Apart from Trump, Peters said abortion was a motivating factor for suburban voters and credited the party’s “unprecedented” early investments in ground operations for the win, adding “the attacks on democracy” from “the election denial folks” had an impact. “People do care about that in this country. It was particularly evident in suburban areas.” Peters said.

There are difficult lessons for Democrats, too. Peters conceded that his party has a problem in rural areas — which trended even further away from his party in the 2022 cycle — and needs to show up with “a robust rural agenda” that is meaningful to voters there.

Image: Rick Scott
Rick Scott walks through the Senate Subway at the Capitol, on March 16.Graeme Sloan / Sipa USA via AP file

Peters has been the antithesis of Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., his counterpart who runs the Republican campaign arm. While Scott began the cycle with bold predictions of a 2010-style "red wave," the soft-spoken Michigan Democrat stayed out of the limelight. While Scott broke ranks with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and released a controversial agenda that became fodder for Democratic attack ads, Peters says he worked in lockstep with Majority Leader Chuck Schumer throughout the cycle.

Now, Scott and McConnell are engaged in an ugly public clash over why their party failed to win the Senate, with their advisers publicly questioning whether the other is doing enough to help Walker in the Georgia runoff. Scott has sought to align with the Trump wing of the party while the former president persistently attacks McConnell and blames the minority leader for the party's failures in 2022.

“I’ll just contrast that to where we are,” said Peters, resisting an opportunity to gloat. “Clearly we’re totally united in this race in Georgia. Chuck Schumer and I work very closely together, and are working closely together as a team to ensure that we get to 51.”

Peters said the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has committed to spending $7 million in Georgia to help Warnock, “and we’ll continue to make investments in various areas in Georgia going forward.” He added that part of the challenge is to remind voters that Dec. 6 is Election Day, given that it’s not intuitive to many.

And Trump, again, looms over the runoff. The former president's early endorsement of Walker enabled him to clear the Republican primary field, and he reiterated his support for the former football star in his speech announcing his 2024 presidential candidacy in Florida. "Despite the outcome in the Senate, we cannot lose hope. And we must all work very hard for a gentleman and a great person named Herschel Walker,” said Trump, who became the first Republican presidential candidate since 1992 to lose Georgia.

Warnock, sensing an opportunity to mobilize his party’s base, cut that video into a campaign ad and displayed “Stop Donald Trump. Stop Herschel Walker” on the screen.