RALEIGH – Phil Berger Jr. filed to run for the North Carolina Court of Appeals Thursday, challenging Judge Linda Stevens for a seat that had been expected to go uncontested. The former District Attorney of Rockingham County, Berger ran a strong but unsuccessful race for the 6th Congressional District seat in 2014.
Berger’s decision to run stems from a concerted campaign by the state GOP to recruit strong recognizable candidates for offices across the state. Berger raised more than $800,000 for his last campaign and as a district attorney hopes to resonate with law-and-order voters.
“This will be the race to watch of the judicial branch,” said Republican strategist Chris Sinclair. “It’s going to be a great campaign. He’s picked the right office to run for. It suits him well and he’s going to give it his all.”
Jeanette Doran had considered running for the Court of Appeals seat against Stevens, but decided that her plate is full working on implementing the unemployment insurance reforms at the N.C. Division of Employment Security.
“My interest has been making sure conservatives contest every seat on the Court of Appeals,” said Doran. “I know Phil Berger Jr. well. His strong efforts as a district attorney and currently as an administrative law judge will make him a great candidate and a great judge.”
The state party has been focused in recent months on reaching into solid Democratic districts recruiting Republicans to contest seats across the state. The results of their efforts will not be clear until after the Dec. 21 filing deadline, but their goal is to produce a wave of first-time Republican candidates challenging sitting Democrats.
“This is part of a very effective strategy by those who want to see the courts filled with conservative judges; it’s smart,” said Sinclair.
With straight ticket voting eliminated in 2013 as part of the election law revisions, the assumption is that the GOP could have an advantage in that Republican judges would be listed first in each race on ballots, similar to other partisan races. Traditionally, the governor’s party is listed first. However, the ballot protocol for the 2016 race has not been determined.
With veteran Judge Bob Hunter running for re-election and recent appointees Rich Dietz and Valerie Zachary running, the GOP will have a full slate of candidates.
The GOP expects to land a top-level recruit to run for state auditor, a former law enforcement official who reportedly has a long track record of fighting political corruption in North Carolina.
The auditor candidate would also assure a full slate of GOP candidates for the Council of State, an achievement the party failed to reach in 2012, when Attorney General Roy Cooper ran uncontested.