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The Political Fight For Michigan


It's not just control of the White House that's at stake in 2020, of course, but also the U.S. Congress and U.S. Senate. Michigan is one of those states won by President Trump in 2016 that Democrats hope to take back and elect a U.S. senator in 2020.

We have a report now from member station WKAR's Abigail Censky.

ABIGAIL CENSKY, BYLINE: At the Trump rally in Battle Creek, Mich., this week, Vice President Pence made sure to mention the GOP's likely Senate candidate.


VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: We'll send John James to the Senate. And we'll reelect President Donald Trump for four more years.

CENSKY: James is a charismatic African American entrepreneur running against Senator Gary Peters, who's white. He pitches himself to the rallygoers as a moderate, more traditional conservative.


JOHN JAMES: I'm a compassionate conservative. I'm a conscientious entrepreneur who believes that we can decide how to use and spend our money in my family and your family in our communities. We believe that we are the best ones to figure out how to determine our futures, not the federal government.

CENSKY: This isn't the first time James has run for Senate. He lost to Michigan's senior Democratic Senator Debbie Stabenow last year. But James has impressed President Trump, who's tweeted about him over a dozen times.

Outside before the rally, Donna Gilliam says she's already donated to James' 2020 campaign.

DONNA GILLIAM: I think Trump's support will definitely give him a boost.

CENSKY: Republicans have two reasons for hoping James can win. They think he may be able to win over suburban voters who don't like Trump but also don't like the direction of the Democratic Party.

The other reason - many Michiganders may not even know who Gary Peters is. According to a poll conducted earlier this year, about a third of likely Michigan voters hadn't heard of Peters. He avoids cable news and focuses on less polarizing issues, like Veterans Affairs, trade and prescription drug pricing. Earlier this month, Peters touted a legislative victory to clean contaminated water near military bases on local TV.


GARY PETERS: One area that I focused a great deal of effort on as a member of the Armed Services Committee was to make sure that the National Defense Authorization addressed the significant problem as a result of PFAS in Michigan, including a number of sites around the state.

CENSKY: One of Peters' disadvantages is his weak name recognition, says Matt Grossman, a political scientist at Michigan State University.

MATT GROSSMAN: And that can be fine if it's a Democratic year. If it's a Democratic year, people want to vote for the Democratic candidate, they'll vote for Gary Peters. But most incumbents have more of an independent reputation than Gary Peters does. Gary Peters comes off as a generic Democrat.

CENSKY: As one of the 100 jurors in the upcoming impeachment trial of President Trump, Peters is about to get more scrutiny.


UNIDENITIFIED PROTESTERS: It's about me and you, not about red or blue.

CENSKY: At a pro-impeachment rally this week, Brandon Sartele says he thinks Peters isn't liberal enough but still supports him.

BRANDON SARTELE: I'm not actually a fan of his. But I - we can't afford to vote like that anymore. You know, you have to - you just have to vote the right way all the time and just do what you can.

CENSKY: Trump won Michigan by about 11,000 votes in 2016. His campaign is working hard to keep the state in his column. And they're hoping those efforts could also net the GOP a Senate seat. For NPR News, I'm Abigail Censky in Lansing, Mich. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Abigail Censky is the Politics & Government reporter at WKAR. She started in December 2018.
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