Amid the well-justified doom and gloom for Republicans, the Senate race in Michigan is giving the party a glimmer of hope in their bid to hang on to the chamber in November.

First-term Sen. Gary Peters is one of just two Democrats up for reelection in states President Donald Trump carried in 2016. For the better part of the election cycle, he's been seen as a sizable favorite over Republican John James — particularly as Trump sank in the polls in Michigan and elsewhere.

But two polls released in the past two days have shown Peters underperforming compared to his party's presidential nominee, Joe Biden. And while Peters is still leading in all the polls — including very small advantages in James' publicly released internal surveys — the race is too close for comfort for Democrats, especially with Biden well ahead of Trump and the party pushing into more Republican states to broaden the Senate map.

The case for James

For Republicans, Michigan represents what South Carolina, Montana or several other red states represent for Democrats: a difficult state where the party’s challenger has to outrun the top of the ticket by a healthy margin to win, but where the Senate contest is more competitive than the presidential race.

Outrunning the top of the ticket is not uncommon. Several Republican senators who won reelection in 2016 outpaced Trump in their states; Democratic senators in 2018 significantly outran Hillary Clinton’s past performance, whether they won or lost. But a challenger defeating an incumbent while the president loses their state is exceedingly rare.

A veteran and businessman, James has never held public office, but Republicans have long seen him as a candidate who could overperform. They recruited him for the race despite some pushback from Trump’s advisers last year. His 7-point loss in 2018 to the state's other Democratic senator, Debbie Stabenow, was seen as a better-than-expected performance — though both national parties abandoned the race before he won the primary, and he faced much less scrutiny than he has this cycle.

James has outraised Peters for most of the campaign and has not faced the massive cash disadvantage that has hampered most Republican incumbents. Both candidates announced raising $14 million in the third quarter of this year — though Peters has seen bursts of online fundraising in October, including more than $300,000 Sunday after a push organized by Sens. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) and Chris Murphy (D-Conn.).

Republicans are all in on Michigan as the race closes, with two top GOP outside groups — the independent-expenditure arm of the National Republican Senatorial Committee and Senate Leadership Fund, Republicans' leading Senate super PAC — investing a combined $5.5 million between now and Election Day, alongside another super PAC in Michigan supporting James. That’s on top of the $19 million GOP groups have spent so far, according to data from Advertising Analytics.

“The one area of defense the Democrats are now playing with evident panic is in Michigan, where I do think Republicans have fielded a rock star candidate with John James and Democrats realize people don't love Gary Peters,” Steven Law, the president of Senate Leadership Fund, said in a recent interview.

Despite the GOP offensive, Democrats have outspent Republicans and hold a slight advantage between now and Election Day. Senate Majority PAC, the top Democratic super PAC, has spent $15.5 million through Monday and has more than $6 million booked for TV ads in the final three weeks.

Peters' campaign has also outspent James and has slightly more booked on TV for the remainder of the campaign.

"The map is so bleak for Republicans that they're hyping a failed politician who's never led in the polls," said Helen Kalla, a spokesperson for the DSCC, expressing confidence in Peters and accusing James of hiding from questions because of his positions on health care.

What the polls show

Two recent public surveys showed a tight race: A CBS News/YouGov poll Sunday showed Peters leading James, 47 percent to 44 percent, and a New York Times/Siena College survey Monday showed him ahead by just a single point, 43 percent to 42 percent.

In both polls, Biden had larger leads: 6 points in the CBS News/YouGov poll and 8 points in the New York Times/Siena poll, which showed Peters especially lagging Biden among younger voters and African American voters, two constituencies party operatives believe would break for the Democratic senator and close that gap. Higher percentages of those voters were undecided on the Senate race, but James' support mirrored Trump's.

Peters has not trailed in a single public poll in the summer or fall, and leads by nearly 5 percentage points in the RealClearPolitics average.

What's next

While both men have publicly announced how much campaign cash they raised in the third quarter of this year, they are required to file full fundraising and spending reports with the Federal Election Commission on Thursday that will provide a more complete picture of their resources for the final stretch.

It's also unclear whether the two will ever meet face-to-face on a debate stage between now and Nov. 3. There's no debate currently on the schedule after the two campaigns committed to different debates over the summer.

Vanessa Valdivia, a spokesperson for Peters, in a statement brushed off the spending blitz from Republicans, and voters would "reject [James] and his out-of-touch agenda" on health care, Great Lakes protection and abortion rights.

Abby Walls, a spokesperson for James, said his standing would improve despite trailing in the polls, and that his record "in battle and in business and lifelong ethic of service before self stands in stark contrast" to Peters' record in elected office.

Democrats say the recent polls have underscored that they can't take Peters' reelection for granted. Brandon Dillon, who was the state Democratic Party chairman in 2016 and 2018, said James is a compelling candidate, but Peters is running a good campaign.

“It's not a slam dunk,” Dillon said. “It's not time to hit the panic button either.”
Source: Politico
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