Berger won't run against Tillis, Hagan for U.S. Senate seat

Sep. 23, 2013 @ 09:32 PM

RALEIGH — After months of exploring the idea with Republicans in Washington and in North Carolina, state Senate leader Phil Berger said Monday that he would not seek the U.S. Senate seat that Democratic incumbent Kay Hagan wants to keep next year.

Berger, the chamber's leader since 2011, said he felt like he would have been a credible candidate in seeking the Republican nomination but felt like it's not the right time for him to enter such a campaign. He said he wants to see through pending state policy reforms in the General Assembly on taxes, public education and Medicaid.

"I've looked at all of the things that we've started in the state legislature and the Senate — where we are with some things," he said. "There's still work to be done."

Berger, an Eden attorney first elected to the state Senate in 2000, would have entered an already crowded field for next May's GOP primary, led in prominence by House Speaker Thom Tillis. Others include Baptist church leader the Rev. Mark Harris of Charlotte, Cary obstetrician Dr. Greg Brannon, and family nurse practitioner Heather Grant of Wilkes County.

Berger considered the idea for months but put off an announcement planned for the end of July because he was still undecided. He said he spoke to several Republicans with Washington connections about getting in. Some wanted him to run, while others didn't want to get involved in the primary horse race, he said. Berger said those Washington voices didn't play into his decision.

Hagan, now in her first term, is seeking re-election. Flipping Hagan's seat for Republicans is considered a key element for the GOP to take back a majority in the U.S. Senate in November 2014. Now, should Republicans retain the General Assembly, the 61-year-old Berger is poised to become the legislature's most influential member.

"For me, the essential questions have always been: Where can my efforts have the most positive and lasting impact on the lives of everyday North Carolinians?" Berger said in a news release. He added: "Ultimately, the answer to those questions remains: in the state Senate." He will seek re-election to his state Senate seat.

Berger's decision leaves potentially two others considering entry into the GOP field: state Sen. Pete Brunstetter of Forsyth County and Jim Cain, a Raleigh attorney and former U.S. ambassador. Both Brunstetter and Cain said last week they were undecided. Brunstetter said he examined the race after Berger asked him to do so. Berger described his discussion as a more casual mention of Brunstetter's interest.

A winning campaign in November 2014 is likely to require a candidate to raise at least $10 million and benefit from millions of dollars more in third-party spending. Berger had shown himself to be an adept fundraiser for fellow Senate Republicans.

A television ad by Berger that began running two weeks ago stoked the fire about Berger's future because it singled out Hagan and President Obama. The commercial alleged the pair opposed a new state law backed by Republicans that required photo identification for people voting in person in North Carolina.

Hagan has raised questions about the law, which makes dozens of other changes that many critics say will raise barriers for those already registered to vote.

Berger used his announcement Monday to criticize Hagan's U.S. Senate record, while the state Democratic Party pointed to other new laws approved by the legislature in reaction to his decision.

"Berger passed on the Senate race after realizing that he would have to defend his wildly unpopular legislative record," party spokesman Ben Ray said.