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Michigan Senate race a rare bright spot for Democrats

Republicans had high hopes for Michigan's Senate seat, but Democrat Gary Peters appears to be taking control of his race against Terri Lynn Land.
Gary Peters in Detroit,  Nov. 6, 2012.
Gary Peters in Detroit, Nov. 6, 2012.

MUSKEGON, Mich. – As President Obama has struggled through his second term, the talk all year has been of another Democratic shellacking. Will it be merely a good year for the Republicans or a historic year? How far will this anticipated GOP tidal wave extend?     

The answer, so far, is short of Michigan. 

While Republicans continue to look solid in red state races and are even mounting strong challenges in Iowa and Colorado, Congressman Gary Peters seems to be taking control in his Michigan Senate race against Republican Terri Lynn Land, the former Secretary of State.

Michigan is the kind of race that, all things being equal, Peters should win. Democrats have won all but one Senate election in the state over the last four decades and Michigan went for President Obama by healthy margins in 2012 even though his opponent, Mitt Romney, was the Detroit-born son of a former governor.

"We need a conservative senator in Congress,” John Tedesco, a volunteer with the Land campaign from Royal Oak, told msnbc. ”It feels like it’s been 186 years since we had one here."

But all things aren’t equal. The president’s approval rating is stuck in the low 40s nationally, stoking hopes among Republicans that the national mood might flip the state red. In 2010, a Republican wave handed Michigan Republicans complete control of the state government, which they used to redraw district lines in their favor and enact a conservative agenda. In 1994, another wave swept Senator Spencer Abraham into office, where he served one term before being voted out when the tide receded.

At the start of the year, Peters looked to be heading towards the same fate. Land led a string of polls and earned glowing press from conservative commentators. Outside groups like the Koch-founded Americans For Prosperity poured millions of dollars into ads attacking Peters for backing Obamacare, which was still getting over its initial rollout troubles. Peters has his own billionaire backer in environmentalist Tom Steyer, but Land and groups supporting her have outspent Peters and his allies more than two-to-one so far, according to Michigan Campaign Finance Network.

But Peters has proven resilient. After Land’s brief honeymoon period, he’s steadily reversed the trend and now boasts a significant lead in recent polling. This month an NBC News/Marist poll put him up 43-37 and the most recent survey by EPIC-MRA gave him his biggest lead yet: 45-36.

The tactics Peters used to regain momentum are common to Democratic Senate candidates this year: Attack early and often, fire up the base, distance yourself from Obama, and make the race about local issues. But they’ve proven unusually effective in his hands, partly thanks to the state’s Democratic lean and partly due to the missteps of his opponent.

The populist vs. the pragmatist 

For Michigan Democrats, election strategies are defined by one key fact: There are more of them than their opposition.

“Turnout is a problem all over the country for Democrats, but Michigan has the largest [midterm] drop off of any state,” Peters told msnbc. “We just have to make sure our base understands the importance of a midterm election. 

That means, unlike competitive Senate races in red states like Arkansas or Louisiana, Peters and his allies can win by firing up their core supporters alone. That was the name of the game last week in Detroit, where Peters introduced liberal rising star Senator Elizabeth Warren at the progressive gathering Netroots Nation then attended a fundraiser with her afterwards.

At Netroots, Peters shouted that he would “make sure that people know that climate change is real, it is a threat and we need to deal with it now!” He bashed the Koch brothers with abandon, suggesting they were spending big to defeat him (nearly $5 million via Koch-affiliated groups, per one analysis) as payback for his efforts to regulate petroleum coke stored in the area by Koch Minerals LLC.

“I feel like I’m not really running against Terri Lynn Land,” he said at the fundraiser later. “I feel like I’m running against the Koch brothers.” He defended Obamacare without reservation, saying Land wanted to “go back to the day when tens of thousands of people in this country died because they did not have health care.”

Peters likes to pair his red meat with a blue collar aesthetic on the trail. In Muskegon, a Democratic pocket in the otherwise Land-friendly Western shore, he brought his brown Harley Davidson to a motorcycle festival that draws aging bikers from around the region. 

As Peters’ strapped on his silver helmet at a Harley dealership for a ride around the city, several dozen bikers gathered at a white revival tent in the parking lot finished up a worship service with a Christian rock band. Each congregant belonged to different Christian biker gangs, differentiated by their leather jackets. The Blessed Bikers wore an orange visage of Jesus wearing a crown of thorns looking down on a bitching ride while the Redemption Riders jackets featured an eagle and cross.

“I’ve been riding since I was 11,” Peters, wearing jeans and a white NAVY t-shirt from his stint in the reserves, told msnbc. “I took my first job to get a mini-bike. My mother wouldn’t pay for it, so I got a paper route and saved up the money. There was nothing she could say at that point.”

And with that, he led the bikers in a parade around the neighborhood, flanked by a fellow rider with twin American and POW-MIA flags flapping in the wind.

Peters’ penchant for motorcycles and shouting in rolled-up-sleeves resembles populist barkers like former Montana governor Brian Schweitzer. But it’s actually only half of his political persona. The other half: mild-mannered financial planner.

Peters has taken more care to shore up his right flank than one might expect from a Democrat in a district that went 81% for Obama in 2012. He was one of the few Democrats to join House Republicans during the shutdown fight in voting for a bill that would delay Obamacare’s individual mandate for a year, a move that drew condemnation from liberal groups like MoveOn. He voted with Republicans against raising the debt ceiling several times on Obama’s watch. And on climate change, he offered qualified backing to Obama’s new carbon emissions rules while calling for tweaks.

“You’re not voting for the president, you’re voting for a United States Senator from Michigan,” Peters told msnbc. “The Senate term is a lot longer than President Obama’s term.”

This isn’t an unnatural pose for Peters. Before redistricting, he represented the 9th District, which included a more suburban and independent constituency. To win voters, he touted his pro-business credentials as a moderate finance wonk “as comfortable in a union hall as a Chamber of Commerce,” as he likes to put it. This month, he earned the Detroit Chamber of Commerce’s backing, which Democrats hope will help counteract Land’s support from the national and state Chamber of Commerce.

This ability to bounce between political profiles gets at an underappreciated advantage for Peters: flexibility. While Obamacare still polls poorly, for example, so does the mainstream Republican position of full repeal. Peters says that he favors improvements to Obamacare, but Land and almost all major Republican Senate candidates are rigidly demanding complete elimination of the law and all the consequences that come with it, including an end to subsidies and protections for the millions of Americans who have obtained insurance since it went into effect. 

“I’ve not shied away from it,” Peters told msnbc. “It’s a core fundamental belief of mine that everyone in this country, no matter who you are, no matter where you live, that everybody should have access to quality affordable health care and I believe the Affordable Care Act moves us in that direction.”

Making it personal

Peters has deployed this “people vs. the powerful” angle to rile up voters in policy fights, but it’s been just as prevalent in personal attacks depicting Land as an uncaring millionaire resemble Obama’s playbook against Mitt Romney in 2012.

After Land ran biographical ads about growing up by a trailer park run by her family, the Peters campaign put out a web ad noting that her family’s company later bought the property and evicted its residents.

Land has tried to distance herself from the family business, a move that prompted an ongoing deep dive by the press into how she had played up her role in the past. This month brought another self-inflicted wound when she gave $3 million of her own wealth to the campaign after having previously reported owning just $1.5 million of assets. Her campaign told the Detroit Free Press she forgot to disclose a sizable joint checking account with her husband in her earlier filings, but election lawyers are still raising questions about the funds.

Land has tried to regain the populist high ground recently with a web ad attacking Peters for accepting Wall Street donations while helping craft the Wall Street reform bill. But she hasn’t proven particularly skilled at campaigning, relying mostly on her fundraising advantage to get her message out via advertising.

Michigan reporters say she speaks to reporters only rarely and has delivered few public speeches. The last time she met with a group of reporters, at the Detroit Chamber of Commerce’s Mackinac Policy Conference in May, she walked away after a brief question period in which she was pressed to clarify her opposition on the 2009 auto bailout.

“She's almost been running a campaign from behind the scenes,” Bankole Thompson, editor of the Michigan Chronicle, told msnbc. Columnists for and The Toledo Blade have issued similar complaints.

A spokeswoman for Land’s campaign, Heather Swift, disputed the notion her candidate has avoided the public.

"Terri Lynn Land is traveling the state, meeting with Michigan families and job creators, and talking about her solutions to put Michigan first, which stands in stark contrast to Washington and Wall Street insider Congressman Gary Peters who has no choice but to run from his record of outsourcing and sending Michigan tax dollars to foreign companies in countries like China,” Swift said. 

Land’s campaign noted that she talked to a local reporter on July 10 while visiting Monroe, spoke at an event in Traverse City on July 12, and addressed the Oakland County GOP on July 22. Land also took a question on the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision from Flint station WNEM at an event on July 1, although their report added that she declined to answer a second question about the Koch brothers.

War on women

Land may be struggling now, but when the campaign began national Republicans had high hopes. Conservative pundits saw Land’s race as an exceptionally promising opportunity to counteract one of Democrats’ most infuriating lines of attack: that Republicans are waging a “war on women.”

Democrats, just as they’ve done in races around the country, have promoted reproductive rights and equal pay legislation to try and boost their margins with single women while prying away swing voters in the suburbs. In Land’s case, Peters and supporters have attacked her opposition to rape exceptions in abortion restrictions and seized on comments she made that women are “more interested in flexibility in a job than pay.” 

“I’ve never used the term ‘war on women’ ever," Peters told msnbc. “What I am doing is standing up for issues that women care about.”

Republicans believed that by putting an appealing female face on the party’s usual conservative positions in Land, Peters’ attacks would come across as mansplaining.

In one memorable ad, Land tells the audience that Democrats believed she was waging war on women. “Really?” she says in the TV spot. “Think about that for a moment.” She then waits silently as elevator music plays before finally declaring she “might know a little more about women than Gary Peters.”

The initial response in the national press was positive, but the results in Michigan were less encouraging for the GOP. Pollsters credited a surge in Peters’ position to a widening gender gap. Republican messaging guru Frank Luntz later said on FOX News that Land’s ad tested worse with focus groups than any other he had seen this election cycle.

At a parade in Farmington, a hotly contested suburb bordering Peters’ district, undecided voters told msnbc they were disgusted by the attack ads flying between the two candidates. But that didn’t mean their message wasn’t sinking in. 

Linda Zimmerman, 58, said she was waiting until the end of the race to make up her mind. When asked if she had any concerns about either candidate, however, she answered without hesitation.

"I heard that Terri Lynn Land supported raising insurance prices for women,” she said. “I'm absolutely against it."

Donna Prieur, a vocational rehab counselor in Farmington, said she usually voted Republican but was undecided. And she didn’t think Democratic claims of a “war on women” were so easily dismissed. 

"I think women have a right to choose,” Preiur said. “They talk about the glass ceiling and I don't agree with the idea women should be paid less than men. All should be judged equally."

A national GOP operative told msnbc that Land’s campaign had endured “their toughest month without question” and that Peters has proven effective in keeping them on their heels. But the operative added there was time to turn the campaign around if Land can use her advertising dollars advantage to tie Peters to the same national issues dragging Obama down, from foreign policy crises abroad to unaccompanied minors arriving at the border. While recent polls favor Peters, a New York Times forecasting model using different methodology showed Land and Peters effectively tied. 

For now, however, independent election analysts don’t see evidence of a nationalized election on the horizon. Republicans might still be favored to win a Senate majority thanks to a favorable map, but it’ll take something fiercer than that to tame the Wolverine State.