UPDATE, Oct. 20: This post was updated with information about campaign finance.
The Michigan Senate race is one of the most closely watched in the nation this election. Republican John James is running against incumbent Democrat Gary Peters for a seat that could decide which party holds the majority in the Senate, and Peters’ lead has shrunk as Election Day approaches.
The race has set state spending records and the attack ads are on heavy rotation. Here’s our voter guide, so you can understand the candidates’ stances on key issues to Detroiters and Michiganders and make an informed choice when you vote.
Scroll down or click on a topic to check out what the candidates have to say about key issues:
- The economy
- Police reform and criminal justice
- Health care
- Gun control
- The environment
Background on the candidates
Who are Gary Peters and John James?
Gary Peters is a first-term Democratic senator from Bloomfield Hills. A retired U.S. Navy Reserve veteran, he has served in the Senate since 2015 and is a ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. From 2013 to 2015 he represented the 14th Congressional District in the House of Representatives, which includes eastern Detroit, Grosse Pointe, Hamtramck, Southfield and Pontiac.
Peters is a moderate Democrat with a strong bipartisan record. He is also one of the lesser-known members of the chamber, and his low name recognition could be one explanation for how close this year’s race has become.
John James, Peters’ Republican challenger, is a 38-year-old Iraq War veteran, a West Point graduate and a former Apache helicopter pilot (thus his campaign logo). He was raised in Detroit and Southfield and is the president of James Group International, a Detroit-based supply chain management and warehousing business founded by his father. In his 2018 bid for Senator he came within 7 points of current Sen. Debbie Stabenow, a Democrat — better than anticipated for a first-ever run for public office.
James is the only Black Senate candidate on the Republican ticket this year. If elected, he would be Michigan’s first Black senator and the first Republican senator since 2001. He’s drawn attention for his comments (and lack thereof) on President Donald Trump. In a now-deleted video from 2017, he famously said he supports Trump “2,000 percent.” In July he said that a “myopic fixation on the president” is not serving Michigan or America.
Who has endorsed Gary Peters?
Gary Peters has received endorsements from:
- 20 labor groups, including the UAW
- Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden
- Clean Water Action
- The Congressional Black Caucus PAC
- The Detroit Free Press
- Giffords, an advocacy organization that promotes gun control.
- Human Rights Campaign
- NARAL Pro-Choice America
- Barack Obama
- Planned Parenthood
- and more.
Who has endorsed John James?
John James has received endorsements from:
- Michigan Farm Bureau’s AgriPac
- The American Conservative Union
- The Michigan Chamber of Commerce
- Freedomworks, a conservative and libertarian advocacy group.
- Mike Pence
- The National Rifle Association
- The National Right to Life Committee
- The Police Officers Association of Michigan
- Right to Life of Michigan
- The U.S. Chamber of Commerce
- and more.
The state of the race
There’s a lot of buzz around this race. Why is it getting so much national attention?
The Peters-James race has big implications for the future of the Senate. If James wins, the GOP is more likely to maintain control of the Senate. If Peters wins, it’s more likely to go to the Democrats.
The GOP already holds 23 of the 35 seats that are up for grabs this year, which means that ousting Peters is one of their limited chances to expand their numbers. Democrats will need to flip 4 seats to regain a majority (3 if Democractic presidential nominee Joe Biden wins, because the vice president can break ties in the case of an equally divided Senate). Securing Peters’ seat is key to this strategy.
How’s the race looking so far?
Peters was the favorite going into this election cycle, but polls show him underperforming relative to Joe Biden in Michigan, and the race has been tightening as Election Day approaches. An Oct. 12 New York Times/Siena College survey put Peters’ lead at just 1%, down from 10% in June. On Oct. 15 a Detroit Free Press EPIC-MRA poll gave Peters a 6-point lead.
Both Peters and James have raised massive amounts of money. The Michigan Campaign Finance Network projects that the campaigns’ combined spending will exceed $100 million by November 3rd, which makes this the most expensive senatorial race in Michigan’s history.
Where is the money coming from?
Peters’ campaign is supported by the Senate Majority PAC, a super PAC dedicated to gaining a Democratic Senate majority. The $5.4 million it spent on ads in early October was “the most money [it was] spending on any Democrat in the entire nation” that week. Other outside supporters include the League of Conservation Voters’ victory fund, NARAL Pro-Choice America and BlackPAC, a super PAC that focuses on Black voter turnout. In a July statement on fundraising, Peters’ campaign said that educators were among its most common donors. The campaign saw an uptick in donations following Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death on Sept. 18.
Major support for James’ campaign comes from the Senate Leadership Fund (the Senate Majority PAC’s GOP equivalent) and the Better Future Michigan Fund, a single-candidate super PAC that has received contributions from several members of the DeVos family. Other groups spending money on James’s campaign include Americans for Prosperity Action (a Super PAC funded by billionaire oil tycoon Charles Koch), the NRA’s victory fund and super PAC “Black Americans to Re-elect the President.” James has consistently outraised Peters.
Where Peters and James stand on key issues to Detroiters
What have candidates said about COVID-19 response and the CARES Act?
Peters voted for the $2 trillion CARES act. He also secured additional aid for community-based and minority-owned businesses, expanded unemployment assistance in Michigan to make more people eligible for benefits and introduced legislation to make COVID-19 testing more accessible. He (and all other Senate Democrats) voted against the slimmed-down relief bill proposed by Senate Republicans in September because it didn’t include new funding for state and local governments. Peters has criticized Trump’s response to the pandemic, saying that the federal government’s initial response was too slow.
James supported the CARES Act and has emphasized the need to “flatten the COVID curve without flatlining our economy.” He was critical of Peters’ vote against the GOP-backed September relief bill. When asked if he approved of Trump’s handling of the pandemic, James said that Trump has “done everything that he thought was best” and said that the U.S. was “essentially blindsided by the CCP” (referring to the Chinese Communist Party) when it came to COVID. He also praised Trump’s appointment of Vice President Mike Pence as chairman of the White House Coronavirus Task Force.
What are Peters’ and James’ stances on education?
Peters’ platform focuses on supporting public education and making college more affordable. As a senator he secured funding for Pell grants, introduced legislation that could help individuals struggling with student loans rehabilitate their credit and co-wrote the American Innovation and Competitiveness Act, which promotes diversity in STEM fields. He continues to push for expanded Pell grant eligibility, lower interest rates on student loans and expanded funding for high school technical, vocational and apprenticeship programs. Peters is critical of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ policies and has criticized her lack of experience in public education and minimal oversight of charter schools.
James’ website does not lay out specific education policy plans, but mentions the importance of providing teachers with adequate resources and compensation and supporting skilled workforce training. He supports “all education options — public, charter and private.” He believes that college is just one option and that we also need to “train kids for a career.”
What economic policies do the candidates support?
Peters, whose campaign site mentions strengthening Michigan’s middle class and small businesses, criticized the 2017 Republican-backed Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, calling it a “huge tax break” for wealthy Americans. He supports rolling back tax cuts “to a certain extent.” He is a member of the Commerce, Science, & Transportation Committee and supports investments in research and development in clean vehicle technologies. In May, he introduced legislation to increase domestic manufacturing of medical supplies and PPE and requested COVID relief funds for auto suppliers. He has pushed (with limited success) for higher taxes on imported cherries to keep Michigan growers competitive.
James’s economic plans include opposing “higher, job-killing taxes,” expanding small business’ tax credits, and increasing the research and development tax credit, which rewards companies for innovation and is designed to keep technical jobs in the United States. In 2017 James claimed that he grew his family’s company “from $35 million to $137 million and increased the number of jobs from 100 to 200.” Documents from the Michigan Economic Development Corporation show that the James Corporation lost more than 30 jobs under his leadership, according to a Metro Times report. In response to the report, James said that he “created jobs elsewhere in the country” while investing in the company’s Detroit location, too.
James supports “opportunity zones,” a feature of the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act that offers tax benefits to investors who invest in distressed and low-income communities. In Detroit, opportunity zone funding has been used in several developments in the greater downtown area, with both strong advocates and critics.
In 2019 James endorsed Trump’s trade policies as “standing up for American workers and businesses.” Peters criticized Trump’s proposed tariffs on Mexican imports, citing their potential impact on the auto industry (Trump called off these tariffs before they went into effect).
Where do James and Peters stand on police reform and criminal justice?
Peters supports increased transparency and accountability for police officers and tracking of officers who act improperly. When asked in June about calls to defund the police he said “I do not support defunding the police” but said that “reforms are certainly warranted.” In 2019 he introduced the Bipartisan National Criminal Justice Commission Act, which would create a commission to assess the justice system and propose reforms. More recently, he supported bills that ban the use of chokeholds, require federal law enforcement officials to identify themselves at protests and improve officer training and accountability. He also introduced legislation that creates incentives for police officers to live in the communities where they work.
James said in September that police departments need more funding to improve training on use of force and community policing efforts. In a separate interview he emphasized his support of “transparency and training, not defunding the police.” He criticized Peters’ National Criminal Justice Commission bill, saying, “My focus is going to be on economic opportunity, entrepreneurship, education and infrastructure; how to modernize government and how we bring people out of poverty to begin with, not police them better in poverty.” James has spoken at length about how his experiences as a Black man and a former military officer inform his position on police reform. “I absolutely support our law enforcement,” he said in September, “But I’m also a Black man in this country. I understand the fear and the anger and the grief associated with these killings and violent acts.”
What health care policies do the candidates support?
Peters supports the Affordable Care Act and voted to pass it in 2009. He lists “expanding access to affordable health care” as a goal on his campaign website. In the Senate, Peters helped to pass bills that lower the cost of insulin and keep low-cost generic drugs available by preventing monopolization by big pharmaceutical companies. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, he has continually advocated for a special enrollment period so that people without health care can purchase coverage. Peters does not endorse Medicare for All.
In a September campaign forum, James said he would repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act with “something that will work in the real world.” In a 2018 debate he described his ACA alternative as “a market-based, patient-centered approach that must cover pre-existing conditions,” and he has criticized Peters for misrepresenting his stance on pre-existing conditions.
What do Peters and James say about gun control?
Peters has been outspoken about the need for would-be gun owners to undergo thorough background checks. In 2019 he said, “I’m a gun owner, I believe in the Second Amendment Rights, but I also believe we should have common sense legislation and one of those pieces of legislation would be comprehensive background checks.” In 2016, three days after the mass shooting at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, he joined Senate democrats in a 15-hour filibuster to demand action on gun control legislation.
James believes in “[keeping] weapons away from those with mental illness, and those who demonstrate a desire to harm themselves and others,” without “taking away rights from law abiding citizens.” In the Second Amendment section of his campaign site he mentions a “mental health problem” in America and says that we need to examine our culture and the “disturbed and anonymous individuals who place no value on human life” that it produces.
What are the candidates’ positions on abortion?
Peters is pro-choice. He recently spoke to Elle Magazine about the emergency abortion his then-wife Heidi underwent in the 1980s. He is the first sitting U.S. Senator to speak about his personal history with abortion.
James is pro-life. He has given indirect answers when asked if abortion should be permitted in cases of rape or incest, or when a mother’s life is in danger.
What immigration policies to Peters and James support?
Peters supports a “tough but fair path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who are already working and paying taxes here, and keeping families together.” He opposes “Kate’s Law,” a bill first introduced in 2015 by Republican Sen. Ted Cruz that would strengthen immigration enforcement by increasing penalties for deported criminals who re-enter the country illegally. He supports sanctuary cities.
James supports “meaningful [immigration] reform that ensures secure borders.” He supports Kate’s Law and defunding sanctuary cities, which he describes as a “direct affront” to taxpayers and “those who have immigrated to this country legally.”
What do the candidates say about the environment?
Peters is a member of the Great Lakes Task Force, a bipartisan working group focused on the environmental and economic health of the Great Lakes. In the last year he has passed legislation to expand resources for Great Lakes fisheries, fund oil spill research, stop the use of PFAS chemicals in firefighting foams and increase PFAS remediation efforts. He also secured funding to address the Flint water crisis and to fix drinking water infrastructure in other communities where lead pipes pose a public health threat.
In 2019 Peters helped secure $320 million for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, up from $300 million the year before, after Trump’s budget plan proposed cutting funding by 90%. The year before, James opposed the larger spending bill that included the initiative as he campaigned against Stabenow, but a campaign spokeswoman said this month he supports increased investment in the Great Lakes. James opposes the Water of the US Rule, which includes regulations to restrict pollutants and farm runoff in the Great Lakes and other bodies of water.
James’ environmental goals include “[removing] burdensome regulations making it harder for our farmers and small businesses to operate,” “incentivizing private sector innovation especially around energy, transportation and plastic production” and “[investing] in our infrastructure with a future-focus.” James says that he would join the Senate Climate Solutions Caucus, the only bipartisan caucus focused on climate change (of which Peters is not a member).
Neither candidate has endorsed the Green New Deal, but Peters, who has described climate change as an “existential threat,” said in 2019 that he supports “many aspects” of the plan. He specifically mentioned retrofitting buildings and aiming for net-zero emissions by 2050, which he described as “an economic opportunity to drive our economy while also doing the right thing for the environment.” James opposes the Green New Deal, which he describes as “pie-in-the-sky, socialist aspirations” with the potential to harm Michigan’s economy.
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