Will Phil Berger’s Reign Ever Come to An end?

by | Sep 25, 2023 | Politics | 1 comment

Senator Phil Berger’s titanic stature in the tiny world of N.C. politics has clearly gone to his head. A whale shark in a backyard pool, he wields his clout with no compunction toward the abuses that have long infuriated critics. Berger sees his rule as eternal, his authority as invincible. But his aggressive deployment of what can only be called arrogance has driven his hegemony into a more precarious place than we have seen in the last twelve years.

The precipitating factor for his vulnerability was the recent fracas over casinos in rural North Carolina. Berger was adamantine in his determination to ram these unpopular blights through the legislature, with the ultimate goal being to enrich local developers and harvest yet more campaign contributions for the Republican purse. With a unanimity seldom seen in this polarized state, North Carolina revolted in disgust. But Berger, heedless of public opinion, maneuvered with a wily relentlessness to get this corrupt gambit through an unwilling General Assembly. By the time his machinations came to an end, the state was thoroughly appalled.

The old bull has earned himself opprobrium. Where many observers had built their model of state politics upon an assumption of Berger’s dominance, the calls for repudiation have begun to mount. Some of this may reflect a simmering resentment of his long-term control. But I think, instead, that the sheer gall of Berger’s casino crusade awakened many people to the full extent of his hubris. He had carefully tended to an image as the statesman in the Moore-Berger relationship, but this norm-breaking has shattered that benign reputation. Among many people in North Carolina, he is now seen as the consummate bully.

This disillusionment has spread to his district. Berger has enjoyed an iron grip on Rockingham County for decades, no matter how awfully the struggling mill towns in the district felt the shock of industrial decline. But the giant has lost his luster. Public Policy Polling released a poll last week showing that Berger has done serious damage to his relationship with the people he has long represented. Voters in this rural-Triad community disagree with Berger’s casino obsession 28%-60%, and by a margin of 41%-25% would prefer to vote for someone else in the next election. For the most powerful man in the state to be reviled by his own constituents is remarkable.

Thus, the calls for a primary challenge. Brant Clifton, a witty and well-connected voice for the state’s right wing, has enthused over the prospect of putting up a Republican against Berger. At least in theory, a market exists for this kind of candidate. Berger would no doubt be the heavy favorite in a primary battle given his awesome power and immense war chest. But even the most powerful politicians can be subject to an upset. Joe Crowley was set to be Speaker of the House until AOC stunned America by beating him. In a populist climate, a right-winger just crazy enough to challenge Berger might run a campaign just crazy enough to win.

1 Comment

  1. Andy Stevens

    Depending upon the district boundaries candidates currently planning to run for other elected office might reconsider: I suggest Governor candidate Mark Walker and Lt Governor candidate (and current Rockingham County Sheriff) Sam Page give the prospect their consideration.

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