On a night when Republicans took control of the U.S. Senate, made gains in governors’ races nationwide and won nearly every statewide office in Michigan, there was one notable exception: a victory for Rep. Gary Peters (D–Detroit) in the race for Michigan’s open U.S. Senate seat.
Not only did Peters win, but he also tallied more total votes and won his race by a greater margin than Republican incumbents Gov. Rick Snyder, Attorney General Bill Schuette and Secretary of State Ruth Johnson.
Both common political theories as well as circumstances unique to this election cycle might explain this split-ticket outcome.
Public Policy Prof. Elisabeth Gerber said midterm elections tend to swing against the party of the president, thus giving Republican statewide officeholders a boost. Gerber also added that the structural advantages of incumbency — such as having greater name recognition — helped the Republicans defeat their Democratic challengers.
Unlike those races, neither Peters nor Republican opponent Terri Lynn Land was running as an incumbent, but rather for the open seat created by Sen. Carl Levin’s (D) retirement. The outcome in this race had more to do with circumstances unique to their race than common midterm election trends, according to Gerber.
“I think (Peters) was just a stronger candidate,” Gerber said. “He sort of won on his own record; I’m not sure Terri Lynn Land was as strong as a candidate.”
In Congress, Peters broke with the Democratic leadership on fiscal issues on more than one occasion, which Gerber believes could have improved his cross-party appeal. Exit poll data from NBC News showed evidence of cross-party activity tilting in Peters’ favor: 20 percent of Rick Snyder voters also voted for Peters, while just 5 percent of those supporting Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mark Schauer also voted for Land.
It is difficult to determine whether Republican crossover can be attributed to a negative impression of Land that pushed Republican voters away or simply to a positive attraction to Peters. Yet given Land’s relatively good name recognition as Michigan’s former Secretary of State, Gerber theorized that some Republican voters just gravitated toward the congressman based on policy appeal.
In addition to fiscal policy drawing crossover, Political Science Prof. Mike Traugott said the gender wage gap was also a deciding factor. Land took positions against abortion and same-sex marriage.
“I think especially for women in the electorate, the Land campaign was at a distinct disadvantage against Gary Peters on these issues,” Traugott said in an interview Tuesday night.
NBC News exit poll data showed that Peters performed better among women who identified as either Republican or Independent than Schauer did in his race.
While his victory amidst a political climate favorable to Republicans was not the norm, Peters did say it was a very feasible outcome in Michigan.
“I think Michigan has always had a history of ticket splitting,” Peters told reporters at the MGM Grand in Detroit on Tuesday night. “(Voters) look at individual candidates, look at what those candidates bring to the office and are willing to split the ticket. That doesn’t happen often.”
To find the precedent, Peters would have to go back 24 years and recall the electoral history of Levin, the man he will replace. In 1990, Republican challenger John Engler unexpectedly defeated incumbent Democratic Gov. Jim Blanchard by a narrow margin. Despite the election of a Republican governor, Levin easily fended off a challenge that year from then-U.S. Rep. Bill Schuette, who is now Michigan’s attorney general.