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Sen. Phil Berger’s Casino Push Blows Up in His Face As Poll Shows 55% of GOP Primary Voters Don’t Want Him Reelected

Source: Editorial Board

As if Senate leader Phil Berger’s push to repay his casino buddies for lining his pockets with campaign cash over the past few years by tying casino legalization to Medicaid expansion didn’t blow up in his face badly enough on its own, a new poll shows that he’s now at risk of losing his primary race next year, CBS 17 reported.

The poll, which was conducted by Public Policy Polling (PPP) earlier in the same week that the (casino-free) budget passed, found that 60% of likely Republican primary voters in Berger’s district opposed his casino plan. Just 28% showed support for it.

The Senate leader, who represents all of Rockingham County and a portion of Guilford County, was desperately trying to get a casino approved in Rockingham County. Had the legislation passed in the General Assembly, his home district would have been one of three non-tribal areas to get approval to build a Las Vegas-style casino resort. In what can only be described as a very fortuitous coincidence (wink-wink), one of Berger’s sons is a county commissioner in Rockingham County.

According to WRAL, Rockingham County leaders may have known about the casino plan in June when commissioners quietly, and without notifying the public, made changes to county ordinances that could help pave the way for a casino to be built if the legislature changes the current law regarding casinos being built on non-tribal lands.

Once Berger’s constituents found out what his son and other commissioners had done – and realized they only had a short window of time to speak out against it – they became outraged. 

Around 500 people showed up for an Aug. 1 town hall where everyone who spoke – with the exception of a professional poker player – expressed their opposition to the plan. In July, the county planning board had rejected the project in a 5-2 vote and recommended that the commissioners also reject the rezoning application from gaming company Cordish Companies. On Aug. 21, commissioners voted unanimously in favor of the rezoning plan.

With that in mind, PPP asked voters if they approved and disapproved of Berger’s job performance – 41% of those polled said they disapproved and just 26% said they approved.

“When asked if they would vote to re-elect Senator Berger or if someone new should be given a chance, just 30% said they would vote to re-elect him while 45% said it was time for someone else,” writes Jim Williams, of Public Policy Polling, in a memo. 

Respondents, once hearing more information about Berger’s casino proposal, became even more entrenched in their opposition to the Senate leader. According to the poll, just 21% said they would vote for him while 55% said they would vote for someone else.

Berger is one of most powerful elected officials in the state, but his constituents have made it clear that if you lie to them, mislead them and, ultimately, screw them over – they will no longer support you. He has plenty of time to smooth things over with the voters ahead of next year’s primary election, but with movement on casino legislation still possible before then, it’s unlikely his constituents are going to forget what he tried to do.

According to CBS 17, the group Citizens for Good Growth in Rockingham County released a statement after the casino legislation was dropped by Berger celebrating the (temporary) victory.

“There are powerful interests and a lot of out-of-state money attempting to influence our great state. We are still working with affected landowners to challenge the Rockingham County Commissioners’ erroneous rezoning decision that was made with the intent to pave the way for a casino next to Camp Carefree,” Doug Isley and Brandon Leebrick wrote in a statement. 

As for Berger and his reelection bid, state lawmakers will soon be in the process of redrawing (heavily gerrymandering) the electoral districts for Congress and the state legislature. CBS 17 asked Berger if the potential for a primary opponent affected his decision to stop pushing his casino plan.

“Who knows what’s going to happen as far as that’s concerned. That was not something that really factored into the decisions that I made,” he said.

It will soon be up to Republican voters in his district to decide if they want to continue being represented by someone who doesn’t have their back and only has his personal best interests in mind or if they’d like to give someone else a shot.

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