MONEY! Specifically, the ability to raise campaign cash.
U.S. Senator Gary Peters (D-MI) held serve in his 2020 re-election bid, eking out a 1.7% win over Republican nominee John James. Peters squeaked out a far smaller margin of victory than his 2014 win for an open seat. Peters’s triumph enabled Democrats to gain marginal control over the Senate when Democrats in Georgia upset two Republican incumbents in Jan. 5 special elections.
Peters was one of only two incumbent Democrats to be in any jeopardy for re-election last year. All the attention was focused on whether Democrats could knock off enough GOP incumbents in a handful of states to regain control of the upper chamber. Now that we know Peters and enough Democratic challengers in those other states succeeded, he’s been handed the reins of the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee for the 2022 elections.
Does he deserve that amount of confidence from his Senate Democratic colleagues? Based on his performance at the ballot box, not really. Peters, whom many surveys rated the least-known senator in the entire 100-member chamber during his first term, actually UNDER-PERFORMED most of his colleagues as a candidate (see below).
But, on his ability to raise money, YES! Because without it, he would have lost last year. The 2020 U.S. Senate election in Michigan was by far the most expensive in state history, with more than twice as much being raised and spent than any other race EVER, including such whoppers as the 2006 Jennifer Granholm vs. Dick DeVos gubernatorial race and the 2018 Gretchen Whitmer vs. Bill Schuette campaign. We’ll all be reading and hearing about just HOW BIG 2020 SPENDING WAS in the next few days, thanks to a report from the Michigan Campaign Finance Network. It will top $200 million in the U.S. Senate race from all sources, including both candidates and outside interest groups. James matched Peters almost dollar-for-dollar, but it wasn’t quite enough to offset the natural Democratic advantage in Michigan.
So Peters, who has touted himself as being a “bi-partisan” Senator who co-sponsors bills with Republicans and votes with them as much as he can, is being asked by his fellow caucus members to replicate his fund-raising success next year, helping Democrats fend off and unseat Republican opponents all across the country in a bid to ensure Democrats maintain at least narrow control of the Senate. Last year, Peters incessantly called attention to the fact that he had more bills signed into law by a Republican president than any other Senate Democrat even when his party was in the minority. With his new assignment, are we likely to see such boasts again?
The unique benefit provided by the money Peters raised and spent can be quantified by using what is called Vote Above Replacement (VAR). It explains the most important results, including those for Republicans like Sen. Susan Collins, whose surprising margin of victory in Maine embarrassed pollsters everywhere.
VAR measures the strength of a political candidate relative to a typical, or generic, candidate from his or her party within the same state. The initial benchmark is derived from using what the Washington D.C.-based newsletter, Inside Elections, calls Baseline Party Strength (BPS). BPS captures a state or Congressional district’s political performance by combining all federal and state election results over the past four cycles (2014-2020) into a single average. It’s akin to meshing election results in Michigan from the state education board races over four cycles to calculate base party strength in the Great Lakes State.
According to Bradley Wascher, contributing analyst for Inside Elections, who has run the numbers state-by-state nationwide, there are 29 states with a Republican advantage in base party strength and 21 states, including Michigan, where Democrats have the edge.
The VAR scores for Senate candidates in 2020 proved to be particularly consequential. Peters didn’t do all that well, and we’ll see why that is true farther along in this article.
Across the 33 races featuring one Democrat against one Republican (Arkansas and Louisiana are therefore excluded), the average VAR score was a mere 0.01% in the aggregate. This indicates that most performances were zero-sum; in other words, when one candidate exceeded expectations, his or her opponent often fell short by a similar amount. The average absolute VAR in some individual races, on the other hand, was 2.9%, meaning each politician performed about 3 points better — or worse — compared with a typical candidate from his or her party in that state. Most of the momentum was on the Democrats’ side.
As for Peters, among 33 Democrats he had a modest +0.6% VAR, ranking 19th. In fact, of the 14 Democrats who had a VAR weaker than Peters’s, all but three of them lost — the exceptions were in Illinois, Minnesota and New Mexico, where the Democrats’ baseline strength was strong enough that it didn’t cost their Senate nominees victory. Democrats over-performed their baselines in 20 states, running ahead by an average of half a point.
On the other hand, across the 33 states with a VAR, GOP Senate nominees ran BEHIND a typical (or generic) Republican in 20 of those states, in totals falling short by an average of half a point.
It’s noteworthy that James, Michigan’s Republican nominee for the Senate, actually had a VAR slightly higher than Peters — +0.07%, the ninth highest of the 33 GOP Senate nominees nationwide. James’s problem was that Michigan is estimated to have a 1.8% Democratic BPS edge. The Republicans have a BPS of 47.5% in Michigan, whereas the Democrats have a 49.3%. So James’s VAR wasn’t strong enough to overcome the relative weakness of his party’s baseline.
James’s VAR actually tied Mitch McConnell’s in Kentucky, and it was higher than some well-known national Republican names like Joni Ernst, Ben Sasse, John Cornyn, Thom Tillis and Lindsey Graham, all of whom were re-elected.
But James still lost, because Democrats believe they have found the formula for defeating Republicans, and Peters’s campaign was the elixir. That will be the model for Democrats going forward, and Peters is being asked to make sure it will be replicated next year.
Ironically, Democrats raise much of their campaign cash on social media by decrying the Citizens United decision by the U.S. Supreme Court more than a decade ago. Yet, without Citizens United, Peters is unlikely to have won in 2020, and Democrats would not now be in control of the U.S. Senate.