Democratic Senators Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters are preparing for a re-election bid despite Michigan becoming an ever more hostile terrain for Democrats.
Both have been out-raised by Republican challengers, including one with the least amount of campaign cash, in this election cycle.
But both in the short and long term, they are in worse shape than they were in 2014, a year when Michigan was considered a toss-up race.
There’s both the potential for Democrats to build up a strong ground game, and to see it boosted when President Trump’s approval ratings are more favorable. But there’s also the threat of a lower turnout among Democrats and deep red Republican voters, leaving their challengers with low barriers to victory.
In 2014, Democrats had a 41-33 advantage in the share of votes they got in a general election in Michigan. This year, Republican spots have picked up a 45-38 advantage. That’s still a sizable edge for Republicans in a state where they only registered a net deficit of a few hundred votes in 2016.
But that narrow margin is better than it was in 2008, when Democratic incumbent Debbie Stabenow won by only eight points.
Peters’s advantage in total vote in 2016 was also less than it was in 2008, when he beat Republican incumbent Don Riegle by 10 points. But in another way, the latter was a clear indicator that Michigan is a very Democratic-leaning state. Both Riegle and Stabenow won statewide even though white voters, who constituted about 60 percent of the electorate in 2008, made up only about 45 percent of Michigan’s electorate in 2016.
Because Michigan’s primary has a Democratic tilt, it can also be a good measure of how the rest of the general election plays out.
Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama won Michigan by nine points in 2008, and former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick won Michigan by almost as many points in 2012. Only one Democrat has run stronger than that in the state.
At a private fund-raiser last spring, Henry Barbour, a Louisiana Republican who is helping John James, a Navy veteran and state legislator, with his statewide campaign, said that while the Republican Party had only built a 10-point margin to deal with in Michigan’s primary, that might look like “a landslide” if the voters were less inclined to be motivated by Mr. Trump’s prominence in the race.
As a general-election rematch against Stabenow, Democrats in Michigan will almost certainly be preoccupied with being focused by the national landscape.
“With Donald Trump and Gary Peters in a very contested race, the margin of win between the two candidates looks slightly worse than in 2008 and 2012,” said C.D. Murray, a Democratic strategist in Michigan.
That’s true as much for Mr. Peters as for Mr. Stabenow. The former attorney general, who has served two terms in the Senate, has had some money troubles, but he still holds a commanding financial advantage over his Democratic challenger, John James, a state lawmaker.
In the short run, that may not matter. With a robust campaign apparatus and a robust message — Mr. James argues that Mr. Peters has not done enough to fight the opioid epidemic, including his assistance to Mr. Trump’s decision to end a program that allowed some doctors to prescribe drugs without a prescription — Mr. James would run out to an immense lead if it were a general election.
But to win a gubernatorial race in Michigan has a lot of built-in advantages for Democrats. Democrats have a 262-188 advantage in the governor’s mansion, something they have not been able to do in 11 years. And the general election, in which Attorney General Bill Schuette, a Republican, is competing against Democrat Gretchen Whitmer, is forecast to draw the highest turnout in the state since the presidential contest.
Many Democrats in Michigan agree that Mr. Trump’s unpopularity and the large Democratic advantage make the general election looks good for them.
“Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters are unbelievably popular right now and their advantage relative to their Republican challenger will grow as the national environment continues to get worse for Trump and his party in general,” said Terry Lodge, chairman of the Kent County Democratic Party.
But the long-term returns will depend on turning out the anti-Trump forces and finding out how Michigan voters feel after having spent five years with Donald Trump as the country’s top executive.
“I think it’s in Hillary Clinton’s interest to win this state,” Mr. Lodge said. “She’s more popular than she was two years ago.”