Citizen Green: Blood on the campaign trail

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Howard Coble endorsed Phil Berger Jr. for Congress.
Howard Coble endorsed Phil Berger Jr. for Congress.

by Jordan Green

There is nothing the GOP establishment in North Carolina fears more than a bitter, drawn-out primary in the 6th Congressional District as the Democratic nominee builds her campaign war chest and lets the two Republican candidates destroy each other.

The party leadership brought out its biggest gun when Howard Coble, the sitting congressman who is vacating the seat at the end of the year, endorsed Phil Berger Jr., the top vote-getter in the Republican primary, on May 15.

The Republican primary will already be drawn out by virtue of the fact that almost two months lie between now and the July 15 runoff, but perhaps party leaders hope that by creating a sense of fait accompli they can pre-empt an escalating exchange of taunts that consumes the energy of their base voters and their war chests.

Seated and dressed in his trademark Madras jacket, Coble was his usual genial good-humored self during the press conference at the Berger campaign headquarters on Battleground Avenue in Greensboro, but seemed ill at ease in the role of kingmaker. The 83-year-old bachelor has become the very definition of gentility, rarely ever speaking a cross or critical word of the many Democratic candidates who tried and failed to unseat him. So getting in the middle of an intramural party fight seems, at the very least, out of character.

“I’m here to endorse Phil Berger Jr., not to trash Mark Walker,” Coble said.

Reporters tried with varying levels of success to coax out of Coble why he refrained from endorsing before the primary but agreed to put his prestige on the line now, prompting a rote lesson in election process, and to get him to explain the reasons for his preference.

I asked Coble whether his endorsement had more to do with a philosophical alignment with a particular candidate or a desire to rally the party behind a standard-bearer.

“More the latter,” he replied, quickly changing the subject.

It was far from a resounding endorsement, and the fact that even the congressman’s family isn’t unified behind Berger only underscored how divided the party is.

Reporters tried with varying levels of success to coax out of Coble why he refrained from endorsing before the primary but agreed to put his prestige on the line now, prompting a rote lesson in election process, and to get him to explain the reasons for his preference.

“My brother and my nephew have endorsed Mr. Walker,” Coble said, launching into the kind of folksy story that endears him to constituents. “Someone said, ‘Is that going to affect your relationship with your brother?’ Unlike the Biblical brothers who were adversarial to one another, my brother and I have always had a very favorable brotherly relationship.”

He added, “The Coble family in that context does not include me.”

Later Coble told me he received no pressure from anybody to endorse Berger Jr.

“I know more folks who surround Berger than who surround Mark,” he said. “I had several folks to call me after the primary and said it would help voters who did not know either candidate that well if I would make an endorsement.”

The whispers in Republican circles have it that party leaders are unifying around Berger because of his perceived ability to raise money. He is, after all, the son of state Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger Sr., who as head of the Republican caucus in the upper house raised $1.7 million and distributed $1.2 million into the campaign coffers of fellow Republican candidates during the 2012 cycle.

Keep Conservatives United, an independent super PAC established by former Jesse Helms operative Bob Harris that supports Berger Jr., has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars from consistent donors to Phil Berger Sr. to bankroll attack ads against Walker and other primary opponents. Under election law, the donors can give unlimited amounts to the super PAC, which is prohibited from coordinating with the candidate.

Responding to Coble’s endorsement of Berger Jr., Walker charged in a prepared statement: “There is no doubt that we are in the crosshairs of a very powerful, well-funded and influential political machine. Over the last few weeks, the opposition has been pressuring many elected officials and other Washington representatives for endorsements. Private investigators continue to call people and places we’ve served in looking through every aspect of our lives.”

Walker girded his supporters for more attacks by Keep Conservatives United, but his reluctance to engage suggests that he, too, is wary of being drawn into an Old Testament-style fraternal fistfight.

“As we enter these next two months, I would be remiss if I didn’t share with you what’s about to transpire,” he warned. “I will address this only once, but it’s important that we are all aware of the political landscape.”

Berger Jr. has made no attempt to discourage talk about money, explicitly articulating that which Coble kept discrete.

“We want to make sure we nominate someone who has the ability to raise money,” he said. “We’ve got a proven track record of raising the most money in this campaign, and we’ll continue to do so.”

Meanwhile, even before the Coble endorsement, the Fjeld forces clearly smelled blood.

Three days before Coble’s announcement, the Fjeld campaign reiterated that she has raised more money than any of the Republican contenders, and outlined several reasons they believe the Democratic nomine is in a strong position to flip the seat.

Among them: The required runoff “means that Republicans will be stuck in an increasingly negative primary campaign running further and further to the right. Over the next two months they will spend valuable time and resources attacking each other, as Fjeld builds up a strong war chest in preparation.”

And this: “The other Republican who will be in the runoff, Mark Walker, is a radical tea party candidate. His success getting into the runoff is proof that Phil Berger Jr. is damaged goods.”

If you think this is rough, wait until October.