Under the Dome

Phil Berger won't run for U.S. Senate

UPDATED: State Senate leader Phil Berger will not seek the Republican Party nomination for U.S. Senate. His decision leaves House Speaker Thom Tillis as the most prominent Republican candidate seeking to challenge Kay Hagan.

State Senate leader Phil Berger said Monday that will not make a bid for U.S. Senate, ending weeks of speculation about his political intentions that threatened to scramble the North Carolina political picture.

“In the final analysis, the decision I made was now is just not the right time,” Berger said in an interview. “I feel like we've initiated a number of things at the state level that I want to see further along before I move on to something else.”

Berger’s decision avoids a showdown with House Speaker Thom Tillis, who announced his candidacy in May. The two GOP leaders appeared to jockey for political positioning during this year’s session and the prospect that they could face off in a primary contest before next year’s session threatened to color all legislative action.

In making his announcement, the Senate President Pro Tem declined to support Tillis’ bid and avoided making an assessment of the current GOP field. State Sen. Pete Brunstetter, a Winston-Salem Republican and Berger lieutenant, is considering entering the race. Berger said he would support Brunstetter if he decides to enter. If he doesn’t, Berger won’t say who he’d support.

But he allowed, “I think Kay Hagan is very vulnerable and it’s a race Republicans should be able to win.”

Elected in 2008, Hagan is seeking a second term and her bid is being closely watched by national parties, who are likely to divert millions to the race. It is expected to be one of the most competitive in the nation in 2014.

Berger flirted with a bid for months and recent moves suggested he would enter the race. The Eden Republican recently took aim at Hagan, questioning her stance on Syria and spending $100,000 to run a television advertisement that attacked the Democratic incumbent for not supporting a voter ID requirement like the one the GOP pushed into law earlier this year. He delayed several self-imposed deadlines to make a decision, indicating that he remained torn about his prospects and giving up his role as arguably the state’s most powerful lawmaker.

The hesitation, he said, reflected his “full appreciation of the U.S. Senate race,” a campaign that would require a challenger to raise near $10 million and spend the next 13 months aggressively campaigning. Berger indicated he gave a bid serious thought, making calls around the state to solicit input. Berger said he heard plenty of support either way.

“Some people were saying while they would support me if I ran, they felt that staying in the N.C. Senate was important particularly given the posture that we have with a number of the initiatives that we’ve started,” he said.

Berger said he wants to watch major shifts to the state’s tax code, education system and state budget unfold -- all areas he said need more work in coming legislative sessions.

Tillis breathes the largest sigh of relief as the most prominent Republican in the race. A race without Berger allows Tillis to make the case he is the most electable Republican and tap national fundraising sources needed to counter the Democratic incumbent’s early financial advantage. Berger said he considered Tillis’ candidacy in making his decision but he declined to elaborate. “The field is obviously something that you look at,” he said.

The other candidates in the race include Rev. Mark Harris, a Charlotte pastor and president of the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina. He is expected to make his bid official Oct. 2. Two other lesser known candidates– Greg Brannon of Cary and Heather Grant of Wilkesboro– are also seeking their party’s nomination.

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