How is the Michigan Senate race shaping up? We explored primary challengers and coronavirus challenges facing Sen. Gary Peters and his likely opponent John James.
MICHIGAN — A lot of industries rely on close, personal interactions with the public. Those industries are suffering during the novel coronavirus pandemic. One of those struggling industries people might not think of, though, is political campaigns.
In-person rallies are a major source of fostering engagement from loyal supporters, and when those supporters are engaged campaigns typically send them door-to-door to talk to strangers and promote a candidate. Campaigns typically also need to collect petitions as well. And then there’s the remarkably important role of fundraisers where people often pay top dollar to get face-to-face time with a candidate or campaign.
All of this has been disrupted by the pandemic and a need for social distancing.
The ‘Gander previously highlighted how a campaign for an LGBT nondiscrimination ballot initiative has adapted to these unique challenges and innovated a new approach to collecting petition signatures within current election law, but how have candidates fared?
How is Senator Peters Campaigning?
Senator Gary Peters’ reelection campaign has leaned in on a digital strategy as well.
While Peters, a Democrat, has been focusing on legislative work related to the coronavirus, his campaign said they’ve been hard at work mobilizing their volunteer force through social media platforms like Facebook. But how the campaign is deploying those resources is also far different from a normal campaign, according to his Campaign Press Secretary CJ Warnke.
Warnke explained that their efforts have also been aligned with combatting and containing the pandemic more than the traditional push for a particular outcome in November’s election. Volunteers have worked on making masks. The campaign’s mailing list is seeking donations not just to political action but to food banks and the United Way.
“While Senator Gary Peters focuses on getting much needed relief to Michigan workers and their families amid this pandemic, our campaign is continuing to find ways to engage and mobilize volunteers to help their community,” Warnke told The ‘Gander.
Warnke added that for both Peters himself and the campaign, the safety and support of Michiganders is the top priority.
But, of course, there’s still an election to think about.
It still is part of Peters’ strategy to directly speak to voters, Warnke said. During the pandemic, that means transitioning events to online spaces like virtual town halls, video conferences and other remote engagement tactics. To adapt to this change, the campaign has had to also adapt its tools and infrastructure.
That actually could be handy long after the pandemic is contained. On a national level, strong online infrastructure has been key to basically every Presidential victory since 2004, and in this arena President Trump and the current iteration of the Republican Party are strong rivals for Democrats, the New York Times argues.
Developing new tools and infrastructure to handle an increased online presence during the pandemic could come in handy in evening the digital playing field, depending on both what form those new tools take and what the future of internet communication looks like.
What About His Opponents?
As The ‘Gander reported, Sen. Gary Peters’ opponent John James maintained a fairly reserved media presence until recently, His campaign, too, was significantly disrupted by the coronavirus, though, and he’s become more vocal recently.
James has been out-fundraising Peters quarter after quarter this cycle, but the Peters campaign told The ‘Gander they still had plenty of cash on hand. $4 million was raised by Peters in the first quarter. And James might have to spend money somewhere Peters’ won’t — the August primaries.
James has tried to distance himself from the President repeatedly. Though he also has defended Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic and in his failed attempt to unseat Sen. Debbie Stabenow in 2018 he noted he was “2,000%” behind President Trump. That’s created the void his primary challenger is trying to fill.
Peters has a competitor in August in the form of former Nixon Administration Office of Economic Development staffer Bob Carr. Carr is running on the image of the sensible, moderate Republican contrasting James’ perceived friendliness with Trump.
“I know that when I get into the Senate, I will do what I can to make it a friendly, likable party,” Carr told the Hill. “I’m interested in the party becoming much more involved across the aisle, and that goes for the Democrats as well. I’m a conciliator.”
Carr’s odds against James are long. James has backing from essentially the entire Republican party. But Carr could be a variable that helps Peters level the fundraising field by adding expenses to James.
That is to say, Carr’s odds should be long. Though he probably still is an unlikely nominee, there are some factors at play in 2020 that could make the August election ripe for an upset. One is the way that Trump, and through him the national Republican party backing James, have been unpopular relative to Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer as it relates to the pandemic. That might encourage a more moderate conservative base.
And the electorate looks far, far different this August. The massive successes of vote-by-mail in May indicate that it’s possible many, many Michiganders who don’t typically vote in August elections will this year, because no-reason vote-by-mail and a tumultuous political climate seem to have dramatically increased voter engagement.
Peters’ campaign said it takes nothing for granted, said Warnke.