FLINT, Mich. — Republican Senate candidate John James says the battle over President Trump’s pick for the Supreme Court shows that Michigan Sen. Gary Peters, is a fall-in-line Democrat — not the independent, follow-his-own-lead independent he claims to be.
Mr. Peters was quick to announce his opposition to Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination. He joined his Democratic colleagues in arguing too much is at stake in terms of health care and abortion rights to rush through the nomination before the next presidential inauguration.
Mr. James, meanwhile, has been noncommittal. The 39-year-old Black combat veteran says Judge Barrett is highly qualified for the job and says he wants to see the process play out before picking sides or weighing in on the confirmation timeline.
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Steve Mitchell, a Michigan-based GOP strategist, said the fight over the Barrett nomination is reshaping high-profile Senate races across the country, including here in Michigan where the candidates have clashed over their bipartisan bona fides in a contest that could determine which party controls the upper chamber next year.
“The only way the Democrats can prevent the confirmation is too completely undermine the nomination to the extent that the nominee withdrew, and therefore this potentially could get really ugly early,” Mr. Mitchell said. “If it does, what we saw last time, is that soft Trump voters really hardened as a result of the treatment [Justice Brett M.] Kavanaugh got.”
Mr. Mitchell said Democrats could suffer at the ballot box if votes perceive them as going overboard.
“All of a sudden soft Trump voters who were leaning toward Biden could watch that and say, ‘That’s unfair’ — especially if they are beating up on a woman,” he said.
An NBC/ Marist poll released Sunday found that 54% of likely voters in Michigan said the winner of the presidential race should decide who gets to fill the Supreme Court opening, compared to 35% who said Mr. Trump should fill the spot before the election. Another 7% of respondents said Mr. Trump should fill it after the election.
The poll showed former Vice President Joseph R. Biden leading Mr. Trump among likely voters by 52%-44% margin, and Mr. Peters leading Mr. James by a 49%-44% margin.
“The race is much closer between Peters and John James than Democrats would like,” said Ed Sarpolus, a Michigan pollster. “Gary Peters is starting to do mailing and to be more visible, which tells me he is concerned about his race.”
Mr. Peters staked out his opposition to the Barrett nomination shortly after Mr. Trump made it official in the White House Rose Garden.
“As I have said before, I do not support the Senate moving forward on a Supreme Court nomination until after Inauguration Day,” Mr. Peters said in a statement. “I will vote against confirming Judge Amy Coney Barrett to a lifetime appointment on our nation’s highest court.”
In an interview with The Washington Times, Mr. James declined to say whether he backs Judge Barrett, but said she’s “highly qualified.”
Shortly after Mr. Trump’s announcement, Mr. James said, “Based on what I know right now, I believe she would be an impartial jurist, which is exactly what we need, to make sure that we uphold our Constitution, respect our separation of powers and make sure that we get out of the partisanship.”
Mr. James also went on the attack.
“Right now the process is too partisan and Gary is part of the problem,” he said. “We have a constitutional process and both parties have to rise above the partisanship.”
“Sen. Peters does not consider qualifications,” he said. “He votes party lines.”
Mr. James is trying to thread a political needle, according to political analysts.
They say the Michigan businessman is signaling to Republicans that he is on their side while trying not to scare away Black and independent voters who could be giving him a serious look.
Mr. Mitchell said the strategy is risky.
“If the Republican base thinks he is wishy-washy on this then the base is going to get angry,” Mr. Mitchell said.
For months, Democrats have charged that Mr. James is hiding his views from voters because he doesn’t want voters to know that he’s a GOP loyalist when it comes to backing Mr. Trump and the GOP push the push to scrap Obamacare.
“Michiganders saw again why they cannot trust John James, who hid his position on whether a vote should move forward for days, and still refuses to oppose the lawsuit that would dismantle the Affordable Care Act,” said Elena Kuhn, spokesperson for the Michigan Democratic Party.
“The bottom line is James hasn’t shown any independence from Trump — who he supports ‘2,000%’ — or [Senate Majority Leader Mitch] McConnell, and that puts Michiganders, especially the 1.7 million with preexisting conditions, at risk,” she said.
During his failed Senate bid in 2018, Mr. James called the Affordable Care Act a “monstrosity” and said he supports Mr. Trump “2,000%.”
Mr. James told The Times he plans to protect pre-existing conditions, but he has yet to sign off on a legislative replacement for Obamacare or layout his own.
He also declined to say whether he backs the Trump supported legal push to gut Obamacare that is going before the Supreme Court.
The editorial board of the Detroit Free Press endorsed Mr. Peters on Sunday and criticized Mr. James for not coming clean about where he stands on big issues.
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