NC Senate leader Phil Berger won't challenge for Kay Hagan's seat

jfrank@newsobserver.comSeptember 23, 2013 

SENATE1NE090413CEL

North Carolina Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger (R-Rockingham) sits and calmly listens as the Senate follows the House and overrides Gov. Pat McCrory's vetoes Wednesday Sept.4, 2013 in Raleigh, N.C.

CHUCK LIDDY — cliddy@newsobserver.com Buy Photo

One more prominent Republican is taking a pass on North Carolina’s much-watched U.S. Senate race in 2014, but the field of challengers remains far from settled.

State Senate leader Phil Berger announced Monday he will not make a bid to challenge Democrat Kay Hagan, ending weeks of speculation about his political intentions that threatened to scramble the state’s political balance.

“In the final analysis, the decision I made was, now is just not the right time,” the Eden Republican said in an interview. “I feel like we’ve initiated a number of things at the state level that I want to see further along before I move on to something else.”

The Senate president pro tem’s bypass avoids a showdown with House Speaker Thom Tillis, the highest-ranking Republican in the current four-way race. The two GOP leaders appeared to be jockeying for an edge in the recently finished legislative session, and the possibility that they would face off in a GOP primary threatened to color most state policy decisions.

Two other candidates – Greg Brannon of Cary and Heather Grant of Wilkesboro – also seek their party’s nomination. The Rev. Mark Harris, a Charlotte pastor and president of the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina, is expected to make his candidacy official Oct. 2.

“I still think the race is fluid on the Republican side, and in my view a front-runner has yet to emerge,” said Marc Rotterman, a GOP media consultant who is not working for any campaign. “I don’t think a candidate has emerged yet that the base says, ‘Yes, I will follow you over the hill.’”

Support for Brunstetter

Berger said he considered Tillis’ candidacy in making his decision, but he declined to elaborate. “The field is obviously something that you look at,” he said.

In making his announcement, Berger declined to support his legislative colleague. The two GOP leaders who once professed a close working relationship tangled in the most recent legislative session, and Berger’s potential candidacy was seen as a rebuke of Tillis, whose rocky campaign rollout raised early questions about his viability.

Berger, who is seen as a strong conservative, was expected to draw support from the far right of his party, including those aligned with the tea party. Such a motivated constituency could prove vital in a low-turnout primary election.

“The announcement breathes some sighs of relief in the Tillis camp,” said Michael Bitzer, a Catawba College political watcher. “But Tillis has still got to be worried about social conservatives and whether they start looking at someone like Harris.”

Paul Shumaker, a consultant for the Tillis campaign, said no single candidate could settle the race at this point. “North Carolina is a big state, and it takes a lot to get ready for a campaign,” he said, suggesting Tillis, who launched his bid in May, holds the advantage. Right now, “it is about building the financial resources it takes to run a race in North Carolina.”

One wild card remaining in the race is state Sen. Pete Brunstetter, a Winston-Salem Republican and Berger lieutenant. Brunstetter said Monday he is “still taking some time to access the race both personally and politically,” but he doesn’t intend to wait long.

Berger said he would endorse Brunstetter if he decides to run. If the Senate budget writer doesn’t enter the race, Berger declined to say whom he’d support.

But, he allowed, “I think Kay Hagan is very vulnerable, and it’s a race Republicans should be able to win.”

Torn about prospects

Elected in 2008, Hagan is seeking a second term, and her bid is being closely watched by national parties and outside political groups who are likely to divert millions of dollars and much attention to the race. It is expected to be one of the most competitive in the nation in 2014 and possibly help decide partisan control in the U.S. Senate.

Berger flirted with a bid for months, and recent moves suggested he would enter the race. He spent $100,000 to run a television ad that attacked Hagan for not supporting a voter ID requirement like the one the GOP pushed into law earlier this year. He also questioned her stance on Syria.

He delayed several self-imposed deadlines to make a decision, indicating that he remained torn about his prospects and giving up his role as arguably the state’s most powerful lawmaker.

The hesitation, he said Monday, reflected his “full appreciation of the U.S. Senate race,” a campaign that would require a challenger to raise nearly $10 million and spend the next 13 months aggressively campaigning. Berger indicated he gave a bid serious thought, making calls around the state to solicit input. Berger said he heard plenty of support either way.

“Some people were saying while they would support me if I ran, they felt that staying in the N.C. Senate was important particularly given the posture that we have with a number of the initiatives that we’ve started,” he said.

Berger said he wants to watch major shifts to the state’s tax code, education system and state budget unfold – all areas he said need more work in coming legislative sessions.

Frank: 919-829-4698

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