So far, the Republican primary for governor has looked like a case of believing one’s own spin. GOP establishment figures have rallied to Lieutenant Governor Dan Forest as their standard bearer, apparently believing that he occupies the mainstream space in the electorate that he holds inside their very extreme party. Now, judging from reports–some credible, others more dubious–the Republican with the most at stake, incumbent Senator Thom Tillis, has fewer illusions. His team may be encouraging a rival to Forest.

The challenge would come from state Representative Holly Grange (R-New Hanover). Although she has little name recognition, Grange is a big fish inside the Republican caucus: Only 2.5 terms into her career, she’s already Deputy Conference Chair. She sports an attractive profile for a statewide run. Urban-suburban, female, an attorney with fifteen years of military experience. That’s the kind of candidate who gets elected governor in North Carolina.

Forest, for his part, is not. He’s exactly like Robin Hayes, Jim Gardner, and 2000-era Richard Vinroot–an ideologue too extreme to be governor. And therein lies the danger for Republicans. A challenge to him would tear the mask off his extremism. He’d have to defend his record, and scrap his nascent efforts to rebrand himself as a modernizer. After a tough, competitive primary, his radicalism would be on full display for an electorate that already likes Roy Cooper.

But even in the event that she won, it wouldn’t all be smooth sailing for Grange. The 2008 governor’s race is the blueprint. That year, Pat McCrory emerged from Charlotte as a promising new face for the NCGOP. But he had to fend off a challenge from the Johnston County social conservative Fred Smith, and in the process of winning the primary, he took hard-right positions that provided rich fodder for Bev Perdue’s oppo team. Grange has a mainstream profile, but Forest would pull her hard to the right as they competed to build winning coalitions. Republicans have lost many governor’s races by running on ideology.

For all these reasons, it’s possible–and even likely–that GOP skeptics will join forces with Forest supporters and hope for the best in a highly competitive environment. Allowing Forest to run uncontested would give him space to reinvent his image, however disingenuously and with uncertain chances of success. But their temptation to back a primary challenger is understandable. This election’s stakes could not be higher, and even a damaging primary may be worth the cost to Republicans nervous about their party’s future.

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