Just days after Gary Peters eked out a reelection win from a $200 million throw-down, he got a heartburn-inducing offer: Would he help run Democrats’ Senate races in a merciless midterm election?
“He basically said in a very nice way: ‘Go to hell,’” Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) recalled the mild-mannered Michigander telling him. “His state’s getting harder and harder. Why would he want to dive back in?”
But Peters eventually did, after further cajoling from Brown and the rest of the Democratic Caucus. And as he mulled taking the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee chair role, a difficult job grew even more challenging: Democrats picked up the majority by the narrowest margin possible, leaving Peters to defend a majority cobbled together with senators from historically red and purple states — not exactly safe reelection bets.
In an interview at his sparsely decorated office in the DSCC headquarters, adorned with a poster of the Detroit skyline, Peters recalled his uncharacteristic initial response to Brown: “I said: ‘Sherrod, get away from me. I do not want to talk to you.’ … It took some soul-searching.”
Now, even as Biden’s approval ratings crater and incumbent Democrats publicly sweat over inflation, Peters is setting a high bar for success this fall. He doesn’t want to just hold the Senate majority — a task that probably means protecting every single incumbent in states like Arizona and Georgia — he wants to make Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s job a hell of a lot easier: “It’s a sense of mission for me to get to 52 or more” Senate seats, Peters said.
Picking up two seats might not sound like a herculean task, but it would make him a near-legend in Democratic Party lore. It’s vanishingly rare for the party in power to pick up seats in the first midterm election after a new president takes over, and Biden’s current approval slump isn’t helping. Senate Republicans managed to do it with a favorable battleground map in 2018 even as they lost the House — a formula Democrats may have to replicate this year.
Peters’ own resume of racking up wins in Michigan is giving Democrats hope for a fighting chance. The former Michigan lottery commissioner’s probably gotten a little luck along the way, but his personal political story is one of survival by any means necessary.
He swept into office in 2008 by knocking off a House GOP incumbent, survived the tea party wave of 2010, beat fellow Democratic incumbent Hansen Clarke in a redistricting-stoked primary in 2012 and was the only new Democratic senator to take office after the 2014 shellacking.
In 2020, Republicans mocked Peters, a bespectacled and laid-back former Navy officer, as “Jerry Peters” — so anonymous voters didn’t even know his name. He won in 2020 by less than two points against John James, one of the best GOP recruits in years.
“I’ve got a lot of respect for the senator. And he worked really hard, I’ve got to credit that. So that paid dividends come Election Day,” said Sen. Todd Young (R-Ind.) who ran the GOP’s 2020 campaign arm. Still, Young said Peters’ historically Democratic state helped him personally, and he advised that translating personal electoral success across the Senate map is tricky: “They’re very different jobs.”
Peters isn’t afraid to take on risks; he opened up during his latest reelection campaign about his and his wife’s decision to pursue an abortion in the 1980s, a rare move for a male politician. And he was one of the few candidates to embrace former President Barack Obama and campaign with him down the stretch in 2014, an election that saw Democrats blown out of red states they’d held for years.
Even as Biden struggles to raise his approval ratings and Republicans’ revel in his unpopularity, Peters sees little value in running away from a president of his own party. The two met recently to discuss Senate races, and Peters came away satisfied with Biden’s level of involvement.
“We’ll be working really closely with the president. He cares deeply about the Senate,” Peters said. “To me, the president’s always an asset.”
Republicans scoff at that sentiment. Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), the chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said matter-of-factly, “Biden’s helping us quite a bit.” He also noted the NRSC’s outraised Peters’ committee over the past 12 months.
With one of the hardest jobs in Washington, Peters has room to try out his own style of politics on a larger scale. He says Schumer, a total political animal, has such a demanding job as majority leader in a 50-50 Senate that the New Yorker has given Peters “complete freedom” to run campaigns his way.
“He’s really got the right temperament for a job that is such a high level,” said Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). “He’s in control of the situation.”
Peters’ DSCC is not endorsing in any contested primaries at this point, letting candidates for open seats in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania slug it out for the right to face Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) and the GOP nominee in the Keystone State. It’s a shift from past election cycles, when Democrats were more eager to throw their weight behind their favored candidates.
At the moment, Peters says he has no problem letting things play out between, say, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, Rep. Conor Lamb and state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta in Pennsylvania.
“Right now we’re not making any endorsements. That could change,” Peters said.
His Midwestern Nice style translates to his bid to take back Wisconsin from Johnson, the only Republican to win a Senate seat in the Badger State since the 1980s. Peters and Johnson clashed in 2020 over allegations of malfeasance in the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
As chair at the time, Johnson used the committee to try to probe Hunter Biden during the presidential election, prompting major pushback from Peters, who chairs the committee now. Peters said in an interview that he was “confident we can win in Wisconsin” but declined to take a shot at Johnson, whom most Senate Democrats loathe: “I don’t take any of this personally; to me it’s just business. … I work with my colleagues here.”
It’s fair to say the feeling isn’t mutual. Johnson is still steaming.
“He totally lied about me. He’s never publicly apologized for lying and screaming about me,” Johnson said of Peters. “So no, I’m not happy with the man.”
If Democrats can pick up Wisconsin and any other GOP-held states, people in both parties will see it as a miracle. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said Republicans are certain to net the one seat they need to flip the chamber “unless we give it to them,” referencing an ever-present worry that GOP voters could nominate lackluster general election candidates in battleground states. Senate Democrats are defending five battleground seats in states Biden won and have pick-up opportunities in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and perhaps Florida and Ohio.
Peters was basically the party’s only bright spot in 2014, the last time the party defended a majority, when Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) chaired the DSCC. Peters cruised by a 13-point margin even as GOP Gov. Rick Snyder was reelected with relative ease.
Now it’s Bennet who’s facing the voters in a tough year. He offered a prediction: “I expect Gary to do better than I did.”
Democrats had better hope so: They lost nine seats in 2014.