Could a competitive Senate race shake up Michigan in 2020?

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Michigan Republican Senate candidate John James (Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)

Detroit businessman John James has announced that he will challenge Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.) in 2020 in what is likely to be a closely watched race in a battleground state.

Although James — a political newcomer who put up a better-than-expected performance against Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) in 2018 — is considered perhaps Republicans’ best chance at flipping the Senate seat, some strategists have expressed concern regarding the potential spillover effects of a competitive Senate race in Michigan.

Michigan’s results in the last few elections make the state a target for both parties in 2020. In 2014, Peters beat Republican Terri Lynn Land, the former Michigan Secretary of State who was unpopular even in her own party. Peters’ margin of 13 percentage points was a decisive victory in a year when most Democratic congressional candidates struggled.

In 2016, however, President Donald Trump carried the state by a margin of about 10,000 votes, the first time since 1988 that Michigan chose a Republican in a presidential election. The state swung left again in 2018, with Stabenow and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer both winning statewide races.

Trump endorsed James during the Republican senatorial primary in 2018, calling the West Point graduate and Iraq veteran “a star.” James reportedly received serious consideration to be the new U.N. ambassador before Trump nominated Kelly Craft for the role in late February.

Politico reported in May, however, that some Trump allies had concerns about James’ potential impact on the 2020 presidential race on the basis that a competitive statewide Senate race might drive up voter turnout among Democrats. Midterm turnout in Michigan in 2018 was the highest in 56 years, with 58 percent of eligible voters showing up at the polls. That allowed Democrats to flip the governorship and two U.S. House seats.

The presidential race in Michigan is expected to be close again in 2020. A poll of 600 likely Michigan voters conducted by the Glengariff Group in late May found that five Democratic primary candidates — former Vice President Joe Biden, Sens. Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris and Mayor Pete Buttigieg — led Trump in a head-to-head matchup.

A tight race is likely to drive up spending by Democrats and Republicans, and both James and Peters seem to be preparing for that possibility. James proved to be a strong fundraiser in 2018, raising $12.4 million, including $5.2 million from donors who gave less than $200. He has work to do to catch up with Peters, who raised $4.2 million through the first quarter of 2019.The incumbent raised $10 million during his 2014 campaign, only $1.6 of which came from small donors.

James has also pledged to donate 5 percent of the money he raises during the campaign to charity. He is not the first candidate to donate campaign money, although other notable politicians who have pledged to donate in recent years have done so for specific reasons.

Warren promised in May to donate money she had received from Beverly Sackler, whose husband ran Purdue Pharma, one of the country’s largest opioid manufacturers that is facing lawsuits in 48 states and the District of Columbia. Presidential candidate and former Maryland representative John Delaney announced earlier this year that he would donate $2 to charity for every new donor his campaign received in an effort to reach the 65,000 donors necessary to make the first Democratic debate stage.

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