Berger will announce N.C. Senate decision Monday

September 20, 2013
North Carolina Senate President Phil Berger (official portrait)
North Carolina Senate President Phil Berger (official portrait)

Phil Berger (R), the leader of the North Carolina state Senate, will announce Monday whether he’ll seek a promotion to the United States Senate next year.

Berger has toyed with the idea of running against Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) for months. In an interview in his office in the state capital earlier this month, Berger said his ultimate decision would rest on whether he thought he had accomplished enough at the state level.

“I feel I’ve got a commitment to my family, to things that are in my private life, but also I feel I have a commitment to the North Carolina Senate, to the folks who helped us get a majority in the Senate, and my colleagues in the Senate,” Berger said. “And so I’m trying to work through, have we done everything that I’d like to see us do? Is this a good place to step off and move into another direction? Are there still things that I feel like need to be done? Will the North Carolina Senate be in a good place as far as a transition if I were to leave?”

He has dropped some overt hints that he’s interested in the race: After a controversial legislative session that produced major Republican-led changes to the state’s tax code, election procedures and abortion rules, he started running an advertisement in his home media market in Greensboro that directly contrasted him with Hagan.

If he ran, Berger would join a rapidly growing field of candidates. National Republicans favor state House Speaker Thom Tillis, but two other candidates — Baptist State Convention president Mark Harris and physician Greg Brannon — are also getting noticed. Berger would have only about six months to raise his statewide profile before the May 6 primary.

State political observers don’t expect Berger to give up his post. After all, Berger is one of — if not the — most powerful politician in Raleigh.

Berger cemented that image during this year’s legislative session. Most of the major new initiatives the North Carolina legislature passed this year originated in the Senate. Berger clashed frequently with Gov. Pat McCrory (R), while Tillis, the House Speaker, tried to play the mediator. Privately, aides to all three men have little positive to say about their respective rivals.

The three men play down the bad blood between them, but people close to all three acknowledge the rocky relationship.

“As with any other group of folks, you’re going to have some differences of opinion. What we have is a House, a Senate and a governor who are determined to change the way the state was governed under Democratic rule,” Berger said. “And what you see is maybe some differences on how we get to the final product, but a broad agreement on what the final product is.”

That Berger has waited this long to declare his intentions is a hint that some Republicans aren’t comfortable with the idea of Tillis as the party’s nominee. A once-frosty relationship between Berger and Tillis has thawed in recent months, both men said. But asked about Tillis’s campaign, Berger offered a less than ringing endorsement.

“I don’t know that that’s something I need to say too much about,” Berger said. “If he gets the Republican nomination, I think he will be a strong candidate.”

Reid Wilson covers state politics and policy for the Washington Post's GovBeat blog. He's a former editor in chief of The Hotline, the premier tip sheet on campaigns and elections, and he's a complete political junkie.
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Reid Wilson | September 20, 2013