Under Senate leader Phil Berger, Republican state lawmakers have entrenched their majority through gerrymandering, taken authority from the governor and helped elect state Supreme Court justices who will protect their legislation from constitutional challenges.
But now the architect of that statewide power expansion may be facing a weakening of his local base.
A recent report by the News & Observer said Berger – a state senator since 2005 – may face a Republican primary challenge from a popular sheriff in his home county of Rockingham County.
The report said Sheriff Sam Page, a candidate in a crowded field of Republicans seeking the GOP’s nomination for lieutenant governor, fared well in a recent poll pitting him against Berger in a state Senate race.
The poll was requested by a group called the North Carolina Conservative Project, but the group’s membership was not disclosed.
Page, the Rockingham sheriff since 1998, told the News & Observer, “Whatever I decide that I’m gonna do, I want to do what’s in the best interest of the state of North Carolina and the people that I serve, our citizens.”
Page could not be reached for further comment.
Jennifer Mangrum, a Democrat who unsuccessfully challenged Berger in 2018, said she saw enough local unhappiness with the Senate leader to think that a Republican could defeat him.
“Polls during my 2018 campaign showed he was not extremely popular in Rockingham County; however, the common opinion was ‘a not-so-well-liked Republican is always better than a Democrat,’ ” said Mangrum, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. “If a strong Republican candidate arises for the 2024 cycle, those same people will most likely support him or her as well.”
The idea of the ruler of the General Assembly being toppled by a local challenger is far fetched. Berger, who has served in the Senate since 2001, regularly wins reelection by large margins.
Berger dismissed the poll results. He told reporters, “I generally think it’s unwise to put any credence in an anonymous poll, and I certainly have not received a reception in my district that leads me to believe that that poll is in any way accurate.”
But there are signs that Berger, who spends much of his time in Raleigh protecting and advancing Republican gains statewide, may need to reassure local voters that he represents rather than dictates to them.
This year, Berger overreached in a way that has left him vulnerable to a primary challenge in his safely Republican Senate District 26, which includes all of Rockingham and part of Guilford Counties. He unsuccessfully championed adding as many as four casinos in North Carolina, including one in his home county, despite conservative opposition to state-sanctioned gambling and local opposition to bringing a casino into Rockingham County.
A September poll by the Democratic polling firm Public Policy Polling showed that 60 percent of voters in Berger’s district opposed expanding casino gambling, while only 28 percent supported it.
Berger also threatened to use legislation to de-annex 973 acres in Summerfield, a town in his district, if the town did not accommodate a developer’s request to allow denser development on the acreage. The town acquiesced, but hard feelings remain.
In these two instances, Berger got out in front of issues that conservative Republicans generally don’t support – state-backed gambling and state interference in local government matters.
Still, Berger has enough political capital that he may be able to afford to burn some on issues he personally cares about.
Berger is on track to win reelection easily, but a primary challenge by the Rockingham sheriff would be a significant test.
If Berger is unseated at the peak of his power in Raleigh because he dismissed the concerns of people back home, it would be an extraordinary confirmation of the adage that all politics are local.
Associate opinion editor Ned Barnett can be reached at 919-404-7583, or nbarnett@ newsobserver.com