Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) speaks during the inaugural Freedom Summit meeting for conservative speakers in Manchester, New Hampshire April 12, 2014. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS)
Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) on April 12. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

Just days before the North Carolina Republican Senate primary Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) is wading into the race, backing gadfly Greg Brannon who is running a distant second to state speaker Thom Tillis. Tillis is backed by mainstream GOP groups and leads Brannon by double digits. Tillis needs 40 percent of the vote to avoid a run-off. One recent poll has him just below 40 percent, while another has him above that mark.

Brannon is a libertarian who backed former congressman Ron Paul (R-Tex.). The Charlotte newspaper reported in March: “U.S. Senate candidate Greg Brannon must pay two investors in his failed startup company more than $450,000, according to a final judgment entered Tuesday. The judgment follows a Wake County jury verdict Feb. 18 finding Brannon bore sole responsibility for giving misleading or false information in 2010 to investors regarding a mobile application being developed by Neogence Enterprises, a now-defunct tech company he helped start.” So why would Rand Paul decide to campaign with this guy?

Before the verdict, Paul and several tea party groups endorsed Brannon. But the decision to double down and campaign with Brannon after the verdict will raise questions again about Paul’s self-discipline and judgment. (Politico recently reported that Paul has suffered a ” a series of stumbles that could threaten his ability to appeal to the same voters he’s trying to reach.”)

At the very least it looks like Paul is trying to have it both ways — supporting the tea party’s arch-enemy Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and also undermining a popular mainstream Republican who can beat Sen. Kay Hagan.) Mainstream donors, wary that Paul is unpredictable if not illogical in his political moves, may see this as confirmation of their suspicions.

To make matters even dicier, former Florida governor Jeb Bush, a potential 2016 rival for Paul, today announced his endorsement of Tillis, saying the road to a GOP Senate majority runs through him. A loss for Brannon now could be seen as a preview of the Bush-Paul match-up, with Paul down 0-1.

Paul’s gambit does seem like a lose-lose proposition. If Brannon loses badly and Tillis clears the 40 percent mark, Paul’s value as a kingmaker is damaged. If, however, he does help drag Tillis below the 40 percent mark, he will look like a spoiler who forced the likely GOP nominee into an expensive runoff when he should be marshaling resources against the vulnerable incumbent, Hagan. If Hagan wins, Paul will come under fire for sacrificing a seat, just as backers of Christine O’Donnell in Delaware and Sharron Angle in Nevada took fire in past elections after those flaky challengers lost winnable races.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee tersely told Right Turn, “Senators are free to support any candidate that they believe reflects their views, however the NRSC remains neutral in this primary.” That is true officially, but there is little doubt among GOP insiders that establishment Republicans believe Thom Tillis is more electable, most especially after the jury ruled Brannon misled investors. American Crossroads ran ads on Tillis’s behalf, and he is endorsed by the Chamber of Commerce.

Paul has faced criticism himself for ethical issues. In just the last year he has come under fire for purported plagiarism (Brannon also had his own plagiarism problems), hiring the so-called “Southern Avenger,” and representing himself as a “board certified” ophthalmologist. If he is trying to remove the image of a flaky character, indifferent to rules that apply to everyone else, this endorsement will not help. Paul advisers did not respond to questions concerning his decision.

Jennifer Rubin writes the Right Turn blog for The Post, offering reported opinion from a conservative perspective.