Gary Peters on How Democrats Held and Expanded Their Senate Majority

WASHINGTON — Senator Gary Peters knows tough campaigns.

A Michigan Democrat, he beat an eight-term Republican incumbent in 2008 to win a House seat and then survived the Tea Party wave in 2010 in a district the Republican governor carried by 26 points. Republicans targeted him for extinction in 2012 in a redistricting effort that placed his residence on the dividing line between three districts. He won again, after weathering a primary against a fellow Democratic incumbent.

Then in 2014, Mr. Peters won Michigan’s open Senate seat in a year when Republicans picked up nine seats in the chamber, making him the only newly elected Democrat and the party’s incoming class of one. And in his 2020 re-election bid, he held off the Republican Party’s top recruit and $40 million in outside spending to win again, outperforming President Biden.

This year, as the chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, Mr. Peters did not have a race of his own, but he applied some of the political lessons learned through his experience in difficult contests to forge a winning strategy for his party in multiple challenging campaigns featuring Democrats.

“We had an incredibly sophisticated ground campaign that helped us, that allowed us to win even though the other side had spent millions of dollars against me,” Mr. Peters said of his own races. “I saw the power of a ground campaign in making sure your voters are voting.”

He exceeded expectations in the midterm elections, helping Democrats add to their majority in a cycle that would typically favor Republicans, bolstering their 50-50 majority to a more functional 51-49.

“Gary Peters did an amazing, amazing job as head of the D.S.C.C.,” said Senator Chuck Schumer, the New York Democrat and majority leader, who will benefit significantly from the extra Senate seat won in the election.

Despite his electoral track record and chairmanship of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, Mr. Peters, 64, is not a particularly prominent figure in the Senate. But that status may change given the party’s showing in November.

The New York Times interviewed Mr. Peters about his strategy and takeaways from the midterm election. It has been condensed and lightly edited.

What was your secret?

The secret is usually always hard work. We put in a lot of hard work. We were very disciplined. But I would say the No. 1 factor for us holding and expanding the majority was the quality of our candidates, especially vis-à-vis the quality of the opposition. Clearly, our candidates were superior. They had records to run on, records of accomplishment. They were aligned with the issues that people cared about, and the Republicans were out of touch, often very extreme. And when you compare the two candidates, it was clear for folks who should be their senator.

So when Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said Republicans had a “candidate quality” problem, you agreed with him?

There’s no question about it. But having said that, I think we all know bad candidates who still get elected. Candidate quality is important, but bad candidates can still get elected, so you have to run a good campaign.

Were you surprised by how many votes Herschel Walker ultimately received in Georgia?

I wasn’t surprised, given the nature of Georgia. We always knew that would be very, very tight even though there was a big difference. That goes back to my point: Even bad candidates and seriously flawed candidates can still win elections, especially given the underlying turf of where they are running. I knew all of these races would be extremely close.

Would you say that you benefited from split-ticket voting this cycle, that crossover voting isn’t dead?

I’ve always believed in swing votes. The advice I give to our candidates is that whenever I run for federal office, I’m not thinking in my mind that I’m running for Congress or that I’m running for the U.S. Senate. I think that I am running for mayor. And I’m localizing, localizing everywhere I go as to knowing these communities, campaigning in those communities and then tying specific work that I would do in Washington, D.C., to help people in those local communities.

I will say it is a lot tougher to localize than it used to be. But when you’re in the environment that we were in this year, where people were generally not happy and were tired, they were open to hearing two candidates talking about their vision for the future. When you had a big difference in candidate quality, that gave us a huge advantage.

In your heart of hearts, did you ever imagine you would actually pick up a seat in this environment?

Actually, I did. I’ve always been a believer. I liked the map we had. We were running in states that Joe Biden had won, albeit very closely, but nevertheless still won. So those were state seats that we knew we could win. I knew we had really good quality candidates. And then once we saw how the field developed on the Republican side, I became more optimistic that we were going to be able to hold it. I talked about 52, I always thought 52 was very real. But I was always very confident about 50.

What state would have been the other one, 52?

Wisconsin. And we came within a point. We worked hard in Wisconsin, we put in resources, and Mandela [Barnes] ran a good campaign; but it was very, very close.

Do you think the results would have been the same without Dobbs v. Jackson, the Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade?

There’s no question Dobbs was incredibly important, and that was about motivating our base. Historically, in a midterm, the reason the party in power doesn’t do as well is because their base tends to be more complacent. They figure, you know, ‘We have the presidency.’ They’re not as engaged. Dobbs made sure that our base was not complacent. They knew their vote really mattered.

Generally our Democratic base is very pro-choice, but in the past they didn’t necessarily just vote on that issue because they always knew there was Roe v. Wade. There were other factors that impacted them or were other motivations. But when the Supreme Court overturned 50 years of precedent and took away a fundamental right for women in this country, that made people angry. And anger is a powerful motivator.

Do you feel you are underrated a bit in the Senate?

My focus in the Congress and public service is I just roll up my sleeves and get my work done. That’s what I do. I am disciplined, work real hard and stick to a plan. That’s how you achieve results. That’s how I won the other races. And I think ultimately, people want someone who is actually getting something done.

Do you think the infighting on the Republican side [between Mr. McConnell and Senator Rick Scott of Florida, the Republican counterpart of Mr. Peters] helped you?

Certainly there was no infighting going on within our organization. I have a close working relationship with Chuck Schumer, and we worked together. Chuck Schumer was a great partner. He also gave me a great deal of flexibility as the chair to do what I needed to do to get the job done.

Headed into the election, there was a lot of discussion about efforts in some states to suppress the vote. Did those fears prove unfounded?

The efforts that folks took to make it more difficult to vote were very real. I think it is more of a testament that we were able to overcome those obstacles. But those obstacles were real. They are real in Georgia. The runoff was only four weeks. We had to adapt our campaign strategy to account for that.

Luckily, people came out on Election Day and made sure that their voices were heard. They were very, very motivated. But we definitely had to organize around the actions taken by Republicans to make voting more difficult for people. Certainly it is outrageous the actions Republicans engaged in. We should be about making it easier for people to vote, to have their voice heard, and the Republicans tried to put every roadblock they could before us. I think in some ways it may have backfired on Republicans, because if you are trying to make voting more difficult and stop someone from voting, they will get angry and make sure that they turn out.

Was it a disappointment to you what Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona did in becoming an independent? She took a little out of the 51-49 majority.

Well, I’m still celebrating a 51 majority; that hasn’t changed. I’m confident we are going to continue to work with Senator Sinema. I work closely with her now.

Will you do this job again?

No! I enjoyed being the D.S.C.C. chair, and I’m certainly really pleased with the outcome. I was particularly honored to work with just an incredible staff. The men and women who work there are some of the most dedicated people I’ve ever worked with. But I’ve got other things I want accomplish in the U.S. Senate. So I’m ready to move on, and I’ll let someone else pick up the charge.

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