FILE - In this combination of 2018 and 2019 file photos are, from left, Democratic U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., and Republican U.S. Senate candidate John James. James says his campaign raised $4.8 million in the last three months. The fundraising total topped first-term Democratic Sen. Peters despite Peters raising $4 million — his biggest quarterly haul to date. (AP Photos, File)
FILE - In this combination of 2018 and 2019 file photos are, from left, Democratic U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., and Republican U.S. Senate candidate John James. James says his campaign raised $4.8 million in the last three months. The fundraising total topped first-term Democratic Sen. Peters despite Peters raising $4 million — his biggest quarterly haul to date. (AP Photos, File)

Turnout and protest votes in a primary can signal how well a candidate is connected to their base. For one Senate candidate in particular, that makes an unopposed primary still important.

MICHIGAN — Both Republican and Democratic Senate candidates are unopposed in Tuesday’s primaries, but there’s a candidate who won’t be on the ballot seeking the nomination of a major party as well. 

The presumptive Republican candidate John James is running to unseat incumbent Democratic Sen. Gary Peters. But how well their campaigns do in the primaries will help assess how strong the campaigns are with their voter bases leading into the general election in November. 

Peters won the seat left by longtime Michigan Sen. Carl Levin in 2014, while James ran for Senate in 2018 in a bid to unseat Michigan’s other Democratic senator, Debbie Stabenow. 

Both men have the support of their respective political parties going into Tuesday’s primaries, that is unless James is defeated by write-in candidate Bob Carr. 

Who Are Peters and James?

Gary Peters is a graduate of Rochester High School and Alma College, before getting master’s degrees in finance from Detroit Mercy and philosophy from Michigan State and a law degree from Wayne State. Peters is also an Eagle Scout.

Peters is the Ranking Member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. He serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee, Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee and the Joint Economic Committee. Peters also has served in the Navy Reserve for over a decade.

Recently, Peters has been working to get Michiganders the support needed to combat the novel coronavirus pandemic like hazard pay for frontline workers and strengthening the federal response to crises. 

John James graduated from West Point and served in the military during the Iraq War. He also has master’s degrees in supply chain management from Penn State and business administration from University of Michigan. 

James is the owner of Renaissance Global Logistics, which received a large sum from the Paycheck Protection Program, while many other Black business owners got nothing. He also has been an ally to President Donald Trump, once saying he stands behind him “2,000%”.

While James has tried to distance himself from that remark with a campaign rooted in a notion of nonpartisanship, leaked video obtained by The ‘Gander showed James’ support for President Trump remains central to his views. James said voters were more successful when they stood by Trump, and that Trump was protecting America from anarchy. 

“So, so for all the stuff that you hear about the President, all the stuff you hear about the president, he’s just about the only volunteer in Washington, and for all his failings, we need to remember, we need to remember that we are all more successful when we support our president,” James said.

That closeness with Trump has inspired the name that isn’t on the ballot, Bob Carr, to oppose James. 

Who Is Republican Bob Carr?

Bob Carr grew up in Michigan’s foster care system and went on to work for the Nixon administration. He’s a moderate Republican and though he failed to get on the ballot, he has refused to drop out of the race, pursuing a write-in campaign. 

It is extremely unlikely that Carr will defeat James at the polls. Even if he wasn’t running a write-in campaign, James’ fundraising has been impressive, funded in large part by major conservative PACs. But Carr remains dedicated to running because of his grave concerns about the current form of the Republican Party, symbolized by James. 

“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.”

Even in the likely event James wins the primary, Carr’s role in Tuesday’s results could be instructive.. The more votes Carr is able to get, the more Republican voters are actively opposing John James’ nomination. And that gives insight into how well James is connecting with his base voters. 

Carr is only running against James, as he’s seeking the Republican nomination and Michigan’s primaries are split — a voter only votes for the Democratic or Republican nomination.

Rising Write-In Voting Shows Growing Discontent Among Voters

In the leaked video published by The ‘Gander, James pressed his supporters to do more than talk — they had to vote. 

“We’ve got to do more than just chat about what we want. We got to show up and take what we want. They just don’t give these seats away,” said James. “Freedom’s not passed along in the bloodstream, some have to fight for with their lives [sic]. You’ve got to show up the polls. You’ve got to get your buddies to show up to the polls or fill out absentee ballots. You’ve got to overcome your laziness, your buddies, and your family’s laziness, your discomfort.”

Data analysts at Priceonomics found that in recent years more Americans are turning to write-in votes. Priceonomics credited this rise to a declining faith in political institutions and a rise in the viability of independent campaigns  in particular they point to Jill Stein’s successes in 2012 as a write-in candidate in a number of states before gaining major media traction in 2016. 

While it is rare and unlikely, write-in candidates do occasionally win elections. Notably, in Carr’s hometown of Hillsdale, Michigan, a write-in candidate for mayor won in 2005, The story of Michael Sessions, a high school student elected mayor by write-in campaign, became a media sensation, but is very much an outlier.

Write-ins can often take the form of a protest vote. The idea behind protest votes is casting a ballot for a candidate unlikely to win in an effort to support none of the likely candidates, not because the unlikely one is necessarily supported. Some states, like Nevada, have a formalized “none of the above” option, explains the Washington Post. And the Post showed just how much those protest votes have risen in recent elections. 

But that patchwork of rules regarding write-ins and protest votes makes Carr winning the nomination even less likely. In Michigan, for instance, write-in candidates need to be registered and approved as write-in candidates for the vote for them to be counted. 

“It’s literally impossible to win a presidential election through a write-in vote,” Jan Baran, an elections lawyer with the Washington firm of Wiley Rein, told the Post. “[But voters] don’t know what the rules are. “Or they know that person is not going to be elected — so it is just therapy of some sort.”

In the case of Michigan’s Republican primary, a write-in for a candidate who billed himself as the moderate alternative to John James may show which side of James is gaining traction among conservative voters. And in turn that may show the strength of James’ campaign heading into November.