Commentary

Christensen: Berger is the new Basnight

rchristensen@newsobserver.comSeptember 28, 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

Here is the fallout from North Carolina Senate leader Phil Berger’s decision to forgo a challenge to Democratic U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan next year.

It cements Berger’s role as the new Marc Basnight, the most powerful figure in state government. And it sets up a classic insider/outsider GOP Senate primary between House Speaker Thom Tillis and the Rev. Mark Harris, president of the Baptist State Convention.

After weeks of exploring a possible bid and even running TV ads criticizing Hagan, Berger announced last week that he will seek re-election to the state Senate. As tempting as a U.S. Senate bid would have been, Berger would have been risking a certain power base in exchange for a roll of the dice.

In Raleigh, he has been the key architect of the conservative revolution. But Berger is not well-known across the state, according to polls, and there is no guarantee that he would have won the GOP primary or, if he survived that test, the general election.

Even if he had won election, Berger, 61, would have been a rookie in what would likely be a Senate led by Democrat Harry Reid or Republican Mitch McConnell. Instead, Berger will continue as the most influential figure in North Carolina politics as long as the Republican hegemony continues in Raleigh.

With his decision to continue residence in the southeast corner of the Legislative Building, Berger is entering Marc Basnight territory.

Basnight was the powerful Democratic leader of the state Senate who for 18 years was the leading figure on Jones Street, casting his shadow over House speakers and governors.

Basnight and Berger are different politicians. Basnight’s legacy was advancing the University of North Carolina system and pushing conservation measures. Berger’s legacy is likely to be tax cuts, cutting regulations and shrinking government. Basnight was no liberal – he was a small-business man who voted for Jesse Helms and was against abortion – but next to Berger he looks like one.

But like Basnight, Berger is a political pro.

Tillis has struggled to maintain discipline in the House caucus, has sometimes put his foot in his mouth, and has had a contentious relationship with the news media. Gov. Pat McCrory has faced a sharp learning curve since he took office in January and has been dominated by the legislature.

Berger’s Senate caucus, by comparison, has run smoothly. He has been gaffe-free, and he has maintained a professional relationship with the news media. As a deep-dyed conservative, Berger knows what he believes and appears comfortable in his own skin.

With Berger staying in Raleigh, the GOP Senate primary line becomes clear, pitting Tillis, the insider, business-oriented candidate, against Harris, the outsider candidate, who will try to rally grass-roots support particularly among social conservatives.

Harris, a Charlotte pastor, has never run for political office, but in 2012, he was among the leaders behind the successful state constitutional amendment to prohibit gays from marrying.

Harris is scheduled to formally jump into the campaign Wednesday with a traditional fly-around holding airport news conferences.

There are other candidates in the GOP primary, but Tillis and Harris look like the major players. A Tillis/Harris tilt will likely draw national attention. Karl Rove plans to attend fundraisers for Tillis in November.

As we have seen across the country, given some of the divisions within the GOP, it is by no means certain how that primary will turn out.

Christensen: 919-829-4532 or rchristensen@newsobserver.com

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