Finley: Why is James outdoing Trump?

Nolan Finley

| The Detroit News

Michigan’s U.S. Senate race is perhaps the most fascinating in the nation.

Republican challenger John James has defied the odds and pulled even with incumbent Democrat Gary Peters, seeking his second term in the Senate.

No way James should even be in the game at this point. Not with President Donald Trump steadily slipping in the polls.

The president’s apparent fade should be taking James down with him. Instead, the Republican, who was behind by five points to Peters just two weeks ago, is closing. He trails by just one point in the latest polling from the New York Times and Siena College, and three points in a CBS poll, although other polls show the gap wider in recent days.

In reality, James may be ahead. My theory is that in any poll that shows a GOP candidate within three points, the Republican is likely leading, given the reluctance of Republican voters to disclose their voting preference.

The question is, why? James is running a solid but not extraordinary campaign. The limitations of reaching voters during a pandemic places a challenger at an extreme disadvantage. The intense in-person stumping necessary to excite voters isn’t happening.

While Peters has not been a dynamic senator, he’s been steady enough to win reelection as an incumbent, absent a scandal.

And yet James is hanging tight in a race that could well decide which party controls the Senate in January.

Peters, a typically private man, is clearly worried. Last week, in an attempt to grab the spotlight, he made the uncharacteristic decision to go public with the story of his ex-wife’s abortion of a four-month-old baby who was dying in the womb. It smacked of desperation.

A couple of things may be going on here. The first is that Trump is doing a lot better in Michigan than the polls indicate, as was the case in 2016.

The signs from both the Trump and Biden campaigns lend some support to that possibility. Trump is still working to win Michigan, despite polls showing him down an average of 9 points. With just three weeks left, a presidential campaign staring at a near double-digit gap would normally shift resources to more competitive states.

But Trump was scheduled to be in Muskegon for a rally Saturday, suggesting he believes Michigan is still in play. And Biden is visiting the state, too.

It’s also possible that Michigan voters are hedging their bets. While weary of Trump, they may not be prepared to turn complete control of Washington over to Democrats. They may see leaving Republicans in charge of the Senate as a barrier against the radical agenda Democrats plan to impose on America.

If that’s the case, it should be showing up in races featuring incumbent Republicans, such as Arizona, Iowa, Georgia, North Carolina, Maine and Montana. But the GOP candidates are in trouble in those states.

It may be the money. The significance of this race is reflected in the millions of dollars pouring in from the billionaire funders of both parties. James raised. $1.5 million more than Peters in the last period.

Already, as The Detroit News reported last week, spending on this contest is expected to top $100 million, which would make it the most expensive Senate race in Michigan history.

If James pulls it off, it also would be one of the biggest upsets in Michigan political history.

Twitter: @NolanFinleyDN

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