Raleigh, N.C. — State Sen. Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, says he will not jump into the Republican melee for the chance to challenge Democratic U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan next year.
Berger, the powerful president pro tem of the state Senate, has been flirting with a run at Hagan's seat for months. But he said Monday that he would stay out of the 2014 GOP primary.
"It's just not the right time for me," Berger said Monday morning."That has a lot to do with the situation at the state level. There's a lot of things we've started that I want to see finished."
Lawmakers this year began the massive task of remaking the state's tax system. Although the bill they passed this summer made good on some GOP promises, top state Senate leaders like Berger say they will push further next session.
Berger, a Rockingham County lawyer, had attracted attention by running a 30-second television spot touting the state's new voter ID law and hitting Hagan for her opposition to the law, which goes into effect in 2016. He was also the subject of a 15-minute video sketching his biography.
But as president pro tem, Berger occupies one of the most powerful positions in state government. He controls the flow of legislation through the state Senate, and during the past legislative session, he helped set the agenda for major policy changes in education, tax reform and the state budget.
A U.S. Senate campaign would have meant trading in an influential post for a rough-and-tumble primary and no certain prospects should he make it to the general election. Hagan has already amassed more than $4 million in her campaign account for a race sure to attract millions more in third-party spending on both sides.
Berger's departure leaves House Speaker Thom Tillis as the most well-known contender among the GOP hopefuls. A Berger-Tillis showdown would have been bruising, and in recent days, Berger has encouraged state Sen. Pete Brunstetter, R-Forsyth, one of his top lieutenants, to consider a run.
"I do understand that replacing Kay Hagan is one of the most important tasks that we have before us from a political standpoint," Berger said.
Given that unseating Hagan is political job No. 1 for Republicans and the fact that he considered a run for so long and has encouraged others to do the same, does that add up to a lack of confidence in Tillis?
"I think folks will have to draw their own conclusions," he said, adding that Brunstetter would be "a formidable candidate."
Other candidates already in the race are Cary obstetrician Dr. Greg Brannon and the Rev. Mark Harris of Charlotte, the president of the Baptist State Convention. Brannon has been an early favorite among national tea party groups, while Harris is running with the support of Robin Hayes, the past chairman of the North Carolina Republican Party.