Gov. Pat McCrory waded into North Carolina’s Republican Senate primary Thursday, saying Thom Tillis has the best shot to beat Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan in November.
“I think Tillis has the best chance to win a general election,” McCrory told the Washington Post during a visit to the capital.
“From a political perspective, there’s no doubt in my mind that Tillis has the best chance to win in the general election. I think you can see that in the attacks from D.C. going after Tillis.”
The governor has not officially endorsed any of the eight Republican candidates. But Thursday’s remarks came close, and appear to signal his own support of his fellow Mecklenburg County Republican.
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McCrory’s remarks came less than five weeks before the May 6 primary in a race where polls show a third of voters still undecided.
“I’m disappointed that the governor would make such a statement without meeting with each and every candidate,” said GOP hopeful Heather Grant of Wilkesboro. “This unfortunately lends very little credibility to (his) statement.”
McCrory’s history with Tillis
It wouldn’t be the first time McCrory has supported North Carolina’s House speaker.
In March of last year, he headlined a fundraiser for Tillis at Myers Park Country Club. That was before Tillis announced his Senate bid. They also share many of the same supporters.
And last week, McCrory adviser Brian Nick told the Post, “For the Republicans to have a real chance of picking the seat up, Tillis needs to win the primary.”
Tillis has led most polls, though he appears to remain far from the 40 percent he would need to avoid a runoff. This week, a SurveyUSA poll for Time Warner Cable News found he enjoyed the support of 23 percent of likely Republican primary voters.
Greg Brannon, a Cary obstetrician and tea party favorite, was next at 15 percent. Charlotte pastor Mark Harris had 11 percent and Wilkesboro nurse Heather Grant, 6 percent. Others trailed. The margin of sampling error was 4.8 percent.
Tillis has support from GOP congressional leaders, who have contributed to his campaign. Another backer is Republican consultant and former George W. Bush adviser Karl Rove.
Rove’s American Crossroads super PAC is in the midst of a $1.1 million ad buy touting Tillis in the Charlotte and Raleigh TV markets.
Other candidates make cases
But Tillis also has been the target of a barrage of TV ads from the Hagan campaign as well as Democratic super PACs. Among other things, they have tried to tie him to the wealthy, conservative Koch brothers.
Brannon spokesman Reilly O’Neill said contrary to what McCrory suggested, that doesn’t mean Tillis is the most electable.
“Basing electability on which candidate is attacked most is foolish,” he said. “The same strategy of using attacks to boost the weakest general election opponent was successfully used by (Democratic Sen.) Claire McCaskill against Todd Akin in Missouri. And we all know how that turned out.”
In 2012, McCaskill easily beat Akin to win re-election.
Harris campaign manager Mike Rusher said McCrory’s comments about Tillis’ electability aren’t unexpected. But he said the latest poll “tells a different story.”
The SurveyUSA poll matched five GOP candidates against Hagan. While each led the Democratic incumbent, Harris had the widest edge, 4 points.
Harris campaign chairman Robin Hayes of Concord said momentum is building for his candidate despite the fact that the conventional wisdom still says Tillis may have the best shot at beating Hagan.
But a lot of Republicans disagree with that.
“I personally see Tillis as one of the least likely Republicans to be able to defeat Kay Hagan,” said Christian Hine, president of CAUTION, a Charlotte tea party group.
“Tillis is a candidate who unites the Democrats in opposition, while simultaneously alienating much of his own base. That is a recipe for disaster.”