Sep 3, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Peters sees 52 Senate seats from his Harley Davidson

Sen. Peters puts on his leather jacket in front of motorcycles in a parking lot.

Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.) puts on a motorcycle jacket in Harrietta, Mich., on Aug. 28. Photo: Hans Nichols/Axios

Riding through upper Michigan on his Harley Davidson this week, Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.) surveyed Trump country and gamed out his own party's chances in November. Democrats, he concluded, can still think bigger than holding the Senate — with a chance to expand their claim to 52 seats.

What they're saying: "The environment is rough, just given that people are exhausted after the pandemic and we've had inflation issues,” Peters, who chairs the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, told an Axios reporter trailing him (by car) past a washed-out road north of Traverse City. “And that's never good for the party in the White House.”

  • “That's the bad news,” Peters said. “The good news is that people don't really like Republicans."
  • "Our goal is to protect our incumbents and go on offense in as many races as we can," he said. "Fifty-two would be historic."

Why it matters: Peters — who won his own seat in 2020 by less than 2 percentage points — used his annual motorcycle tour to tout his party's recent legislative victories but also talk to some of the reddest parts of Michigan and supplement reams of polling data.

  • This year, along with a dozen other riders, Peters logged 1,000 miles — from Muskegon to the Upper Peninsula and back down to the Lansing area — on his Pan America™ 1250.

The big picture: Peters' roadside optimism stands in contrast to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who has recently tempered his own party's expectations as Trump-backed nominees appear to struggle in some general election races.

  • Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, is publicly criticizing Republicans for “trash-talking" his candidates, calling it "treasonous to the conservative cause" in a Washington Examiner op-ed.

Zoom in: At Chandlers Café, a roadside joint known for its homemade pizza and fresh coffee, Peters got credit just for showing up. The population of Harrietta, Michigan, is 151.

  • “It makes a huge difference for someone in high power to come to a small town and show a face,” said the owner, Amanda Chandler, a self-described independent who struggled to stay open during the lockdown. “From what I hear, he does a great job."

Zoom out: So far, Democrats in tight Senate races have been able to run ahead of Biden, whose own approval ratings have been inching upward.

  • That’s fueling hopes for retaining incumbent Democratic seats in the Senate — while working toward potential pickups in states including Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. The Cook Political Report even says that a GOP victory in the House is no longer a "foregone conclusion."
  • But Senate leaders are bracing for their candidates to get roughed up by an onslaught of negative TV ads. “After Labor Day, there’s going to be an unbelievable amount of Republican money going against our candidates,” Peters said. “These are all going to be tight races.”
  • “I don't want to sugarcoat this too much,” Peters said. “I'm a real realist.”

Between the lines: Peters says a backlash to the Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe v. Wade is giving Democrats an advantage in protecting incumbents in New Hampshire, Arizona and Nevada.

  • He doesn’t mention Georgia, where Sen. Raphael Warnock will face voters after winning a special election in 2020 in a historically conservative state.

The other side: Republican candidates were outspent over the summer. The dynamics could change as voters tune in more seriously after Labor Day and groups like Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC aligned with McConnell, unleash some $160 million in ads.

  • SLF communications director Jack Pandol said that "accountability is coming."
  • "Democrats dutifully rubber-stamped Joe Biden's toxic agenda in Washington but exhibit Biden amnesia back home," Pandol said. "The more voters learn what they've been up to, the angrier they are at Democrats for destroying their quality of life."
  • “Republican and Democrat spending will be on parity in most of our target states from now until Election Day and we’re well-positioned to have big wins across the country,” said Chris Hartline, an NRSC spokesman.

What's next: As a survivor of tough races in a deeply divided state, Peters tells incumbents and challengers alike to hit the country roads. “It's important to be in rural areas that have tended to move away from Democrats,” he said. “You've got to go all over your state, but don't ever shy away from going rural.”

  • Peters isn’t advising every candidate to hop on a Harley.
  • “That may not be authentic,” he said. “The No. 1 rule of authenticity is, you actually have to be authentic.”
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