Raleigh, N.C. — In a highly unusual move for a sitting governor, Gov. Pat McCrory on Tuesday offered a ringing endorsement of state House Speaker Thom Tillis in next week's Republican primary for the U.S. Senate.
The governor delivered his endorsement at a campaign event at which the U.S. Chamber of Commerce also endorsed Tillis.
McCrory complimented the other GOP contenders, saying he would back the winner, whoever it might be. But he said Tillis had "risen to the top" in the campaign process, calling him "the most electable" and "the right candidate at the right time."
Political parties don't generally get involved in primary races, nor do governors, who serve as the public face of their parties. McCrory said he felt compelled to endorse Tillis in the Senate race because "a lot of people" have asked him who he's voting for.
"I felt like I needed to be upfront with the people, be direct with the people, and let them know that, tomorrow, I'm voting for Thom Tillis," McCrory said. "That's the type of leader I am. I tell people exactly where I stand on the issue."
Tillis is backed by GOP strategist Karl Rove and his group American Crossroads, as well as by Sen. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. But despite their support, he has struggled until recently to break out of a crowded primary field. Seven other GOP candidates are vying for the nomination.
Two recent polls, however, show Tillis reaching the 40 percent threshold needed to avoid a primary runoff. National Republicans are hoping to avoid that scenario, fearing it could weaken the eventual winner in the November contest against incumbent Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan.
His closest challenger, Dr. Greg Brannon of Cary, has the backing of tea party groups, while another top candidate, Rev. Mark Harris of Charlotte, has support from Christian conservatives. Both Brannon and Harris have sought to paint Tillis as insufficiently conservative, most recently in Monday night's final primary debate.
Tillis has also taken heat from some Republican legislators who've accused him of standing in the way of conservative bills. Tillis called those accusations "dubious," pointing to his endorsements by the National Rifle Association, the U.S. Chamber and other conservative groups.
Neither the Brannon campaign nor the Harris campaign immediately responded to requests for comment on the governor's decision to endorse their rival.
Francis Deluca, president of the right-leaning Civitas Institute, said a governor's support for a primary candidate isn't unheard of.
In 1986, then-Gov. Jim Martin appeared at an event with fellow Republican U.S. Senate primary candidate Jim Broyhill. Even though Martin reportedly stressed that his appearance did not constitute an endorsement of Broyhill, most political observers concluded otherwise.
DeLuca says McCrory's clear endorsement of Tillis "is probably a healthier thing" than de facto endorsements like Martin's.
"I think his endorsement is an acknowledgment of where the race is in terms of level of support and likely outcome," DeLuca said. "He is interested in uniting the GOP and heading into a legislative session without the distraction of a prolonged primary fight."
He added that the endorsement is "a no-brainer" for Tillis because McCrory polls well with likely GOP primary voters.
But William Peace University political science professor David McLennan called the endorsement "very rare."
"Politically, it may help McCrory push through some items – particularly teacher pay – in the short session," McLennan told WRAL News. "It will, however, potentially create a rift in Republican circles among tea party and social conservative Republicans who already are suspicious of McCrory."
NC State political science professor Steven Greene said McCrory's move may signal "a new era that reflects the divisions in the Republican Party."
"After some clearly bad outcomes for them in Senate races in other states," like Indiana and Missouri, Greene said, "the Chamber of Commerce types in the GOP appear to be increasingly unwilling to leave things to chance and allow a Tea Party candidate with far worse general election prospects to be nominated."