An alternate theory of the Berger campaign ad

There are some political insiders speculating that state Sen. Phil Berger's television spot on voter ID has less to do with his own political ambitions than another Congressional race involving a politician by the same name.

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Sen. Phil Berger
Mark Binker
RALEIGH, N.C. — This weekend's release of a voter ID-themed ad by state Sen. Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, fueled speculation about his intent to run for U.S. Senate.

Currently, the only other big political name in the race is House Speaker Thom Tillis, and a showdown between the two top leaders of the legislature is tantalizing for those of us who cover state politics and government. 

But there is an alternative theory of why Berger might be putting an ad out that has less to do with his own ambitions and more to do with the potential congressional run by Phil Berger Jr., the Rockingham County district attorney and the state senator's son. 

The thinking goes like this: Name recognition is important when it comes to polling and raising the gobs of money one needs to raise in order to run for Congress. While Phil Berger and Phil Berger Jr. are two different people with their own political careers, raising the name recognition for one helps raise the name recognition for the other – at least as far as poll respondents go.

The younger Berger has said he would not run for Congress against incumbent 6th District Congressman Howard Coble. So, while he sits patiently on the sidelines, giving all due deference to Coble, his father is free to build up some name ID among the voters for both of them. 

Now, it's worth saying that this theory probably appeals to Team Tillis, which would rather avoid a bruising primary, especially against a fellow legislator. 

Folks on Team Berger did little to give credence to the theory Monday afternoon.  

"That's not the purpose of the ad," said Ray Martin, a political adviser to Berger, pointing out that Berger is simply outlining the rationale for a voter ID law that has been heavily criticized.

"The purpose of the ad is to highlight Kay Hagan's failure to represent her constituents in the U.S. Senate and to explain to voters about the new voter ID law."

Hagan, of course, has a different take, saying that she is "standing up for access to the ballot box for all voters."

As for district attorney Berger, I caught up with him as he headed to Surry County to handle a case in which the local district attorney had a conflict.

"I support Howard (Coble) and I look forward to supporting him for re-election this spring," the district attorney said, adding that he would not run for Coble's seat.

He said that he was taking on extra cases rather than laying the foundations for a congressional run. 

So, is Coble running?

Well, he is holding a fundraiser later this month. However, Ed McDonald, Coble's chief of staff and spokesman, said the longtime, 82-year-old congressman won't make a final decision on running until later in the year.

"Unlike some others, Phil's been very deferential toward (Coble)," McDonald said.

So, none of that adds up to definitive evidence one way or the other, and certainly most political watchers seem to think Sen. Berger is positioning himself for the U.S. Senate campaign. 

But as more than one GOP operative pointed out, there are all kinds of good reasons for a high-profile Republican to run a television ad touting voter ID and slamming Hagan and President Barack Obama.


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