Veteran observers don’t seem to think Phil Berger will run for U.S. Senate, and I’m in no position to question them. But a Berger campaign actually makes a lot of sense. As an establishment-aligned conservative, he has the potential to sweep away Thom Tillis and win the Republican nomination.
Berger possesses all of Tillis’s strengths and none of his weaknesses. Like Tillis, Berger is well connected to party leaders. This gives him a statewide network that other conservatives will have to build from scratch. Berger also has money: In the first half of 2013, he raised $475,000, more than Tillis has been able to raise for an active U.S. Senate campaign. Better still, as a Senatorial candidate Berger could offer donors a two-for-one. They’d get access to him in Washington and in the General Assembly. By promising to resign from the legislature, Tillis ensures his donors only get a one-time deal.
From the perspective of national Republicans, Berger is a better choice than Tillis. Washington likes candidates who are economically conservative and reasonably level-headed. Tillis fits this bill too, but when they clashed Berger came out better. Why? Because he showed greater fealty to trickle-down economics, K Street’s cherished creed. Given the option of one man who moderated his tax plan and one who went all the way, the supply sider is D.C.’s clear choice.
Unlike Tillis, Berger could add Tea Partiers to his coalition. Tea Party voters would personally identify with how Berger has held Tillis’s feet to the fire, again and again. There’s a cultural-class factor, too. Many Tea Partiers, who see themselves as underdogs, distrust Tillis’s smooth, corporate style. Berger’s “populism” is substantively absurd, but as a son of the working class it is his native political language. The Right would love it.
Now, as a rural, anti-choice macho man, Berger would make an even worse general election candidate than Tillis. Hagan wouldn’t even have to try to show he’s out of touch with most women. That only becomes a problem on May 8, however. Up until then, Berger’s prospects are bright.