Raleigh, N.C. — Sen. Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, said Tuesday that he has not made a decision as to whether he'll run for U.S. Senate next year, a move that could put the state Senate's leader directly in conflict with the leader of the state House.
Berger, the president pro tem of the Senate, said he met with operatives from the National Republican Senate Committee Tuesday morning, adding in a typical deadpan that the meeting went "about as I expected."
House Speaker Thom Tillis has announced that he will run for the chance to challenge U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan, a Democrat, in the 2014 election. Hagan is wrapping up her first six-year term after defeating Sen. Elizabeth Dole in 2008.
"I'm not any closer to what the decision is, but I'm closer to a decision," Berger said.
Asked what his deadline might be before deciding whether he is in or out of the race, Berger said, "I should make a decision by the end of the month."
If legislative business moves as expected, an end-of-month announcement would come just after lawmakers adjourn for the year and avoid an open conflict between the General Assembly's two top leaders. Already, the two chambers are involved in tense negotiations over a tax reform plan as well as a budget bill.
Berger is a reserved, small-town lawyer who served at the Senate's minority leader before helping the GOP wrest control of the chamber in 2010 after a century-long Democratic stranglehold. Although some moves –such as producing a 15-minute biographical video and appearing with tax maven Grover Norquist to tout his tax reform plan – have prompted speculation he is interested in a run, Berger has been less eager to tout his potential candidacy than Tillis.
Tillis is already raising money for a potential run and has hired veteran strategist Paul Shumaker to run his campaign. Still, if NRSC officials are talking to Berger and other potential candidates, it's a sign they may not be sold on Tillis' ability to win. Part of that may have to do with disappointing numbers seen in public polls or the fact that the House has been a raucous chamber that has produced attention-grabbing bills, such as a measure that endorses an official state religion.
Jim Ellis, a political consultant who has worked for the NRSC, calls North Carolina a "recruiting disappointment" in a blog post first noted on The News & Observer's Dome blog.
"Sen. Kay Hagan (NC) should be at the top of the vulnerability list, but she’s not," Ellis writes. "Republicans didn’t draw a top-tier challenge candidate, but we’ll see if state House Speaker Thom Tillis’ campaign can develop. Considering the legislature’s poor approval ratings, Tillis has an even steeper hill to climb to position himself for victory."
It would seem low legislative approval ratings are a problem for Tillis, but they would be equally troubling for Berger.