As predicted recently on NC SPIN, Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger announced he would not be a candidate in the May 2014 primary for the U.S. Senate. His decision was both political and pragmatic.
Speculation about Berger’s candidacy started during the legislative session, with the Pro Tem promising a decision shortly after it concluded. What took so long? Phil Berger is a smart man and went to great lengths to consider a run from many angles.
There is no love lost between Berger and House Speaker Thom Tillis, already declared for the primary. Some thought rivalry might be enough to draw Berger into the contest. Tillis had also announced he would not seek re-election to be Speaker, meaning if both decided to run we would have new leadership in both houses of the legislature in 2014 both houses of the legislature, which might be good news to Gov. McCrory. But by remaining in power Berger gains a bit more leverage over the House and, without Tillis as an ally, the governor faces a more powerful Senate leader.
Unquestionably funding played a big part in the decision. Republicans have targeted incumbent Kay Hagan’s seat as essential in the quest to take control of the Senate and the national party and special interest groups have promised to pony up large sums in that effort, but Berger is smart enough to know that from declaration to election day he will likely need as much as $15 million and he was going to need to raise as much as 60 percent of that from North Carolina. He obviously didn’t see it happening.
Then there are the Tea Partiers. In Reverend Mark Harris and Dr. Greg Bannon, the far right has two advocates prepared to battle to the death with mainstream Republicans. It won’t be pretty and it is highly likely that whoever wins the nomination will doing triage on a badly split GOP, much like was the case in the 1984 Democratic gubernatorial primary, where the party was so divided it couldn’t heal and lost the race to Jim Martin. Neither the Tea Partiers or mainstream Republicans will have anywhere else to go in the 2014 General Election but they might just sit out the race, as many Dems did in 1984.
Incumbent U.S. Senator Kay Hagan may appear vulnerable to Republicans but she is sitting on a large war chest with millions in the bank and more on the way. National Democrats will be just as eager to retain her seat as Republicans are to win it so they will be prepared to pump big dollars into supporting her.
Berger said his final decision was made because he had work he hadn’t finished in the Senate. That’s political speak for Berger saying he didn’t think he could ultimately win the U.S. Senate seat.
It’s a long time until November 2014, but with a nasty and divisive Republican primary sure to play out in May odds makers are now betting on Hagan to retain her seat. TV and radio stations will love the ad dollars this campaign is sure to generate and it will be interesting seeing the charges and counter charges flying. As it looks now Hagan wins.
Campbell is the executive producer and moderator of NC SPIN, a weekly panel discussion on state issues that airs on WMYT “MY TV12” at 10 a.m. on Sundays and on WJZY “CW46” at 6:30 a.m. and 11:05 p.m. on Sundays and on WFMY-TV at 5:30 a.m. Sundays.