Gov. Beverly Perdue said Thursday she will not seek re-election because she fears a fight with Republicans over public education would become too political. But she entered the election year with some baggage: a campaign finance investigation, sagging poll numbers and worries from fellow Democrats she would drag them down in a key battleground state for President Barack Obama.
Perdue, the state's first woman governor, rode into office partly on the coattails of Obama's surprise 2008 victory in North Carolina. Her departure created a wide-open gubernatorial primary in a state that is so key to Obama, Democrats are hosting their national convention in Charlotte in September.
Perdue, a former school teacher, said her decision was about protecting public education from spending cuts by the GOP-led Legislature. She said in highly partisan times, her re-election bid would "only further politicize the fight to adequately fund our schools."
"The thing I care about most right now is making sure that our schools and schoolchildren do not continue to be the victims of shortsighted legislative actions and severe budget cuts inflicted by a legislative majority with the wrong priorities," Perdue said in a statement.
The statement made no mention of what Perdue, 65, planned to do in the future. Perdue campaign spokesman Marc Farinella said the governor declined to speak to reporters Thursday because she is spending time with her family after making "this very difficult decision."
"For now she wants her statement to speak for itself," he said.
Perdue's decision caught many by surprise, and means it will be the first time a sitting North Carolina governor has failed to get elected to a second term since voters gave chief executives authority to succeed themselves in the 1970s.
"It is really uncommon for a sitting governor to have the opportunity to run for re-election to not do so, even in a harsh political climate," said Steven Greene, a political science professor at North Carolina State University. "But an objective analysis of the political situation suggests she'd have an extremely uphill fight for re-election."
Perdue faced a tough rematch against former Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory, a Republican she narrowly defeated in 2008 in the state's closest gubernatorial contest since 1972. Only two Republicans have been governor in more than 100 years.
Obama's win here was the first in 32 years for a Democratic nominee for president. He praised Perdue for breaking down barriers during her political career.
"For over 25 years, she has fought for the people of the Tar Heel state _ working to transform the state's public schools, improve the health care system, protect and attract jobs for members of the military and their families, and create the jobs of the future," Obama said in a statement.
Perdue's decision could help Obama and the party's eventual nominee by removing Perdue as a liability, said Brad Crone, a Raleigh-based Democratic consultant.
"It strengthens the Democratic Party's top of the ticket, and that's definitely going to be good news for Obama," Crone said.
Perdue faced scrutiny about her 2008 campaign and more than three dozen flights that she didn't initially report on campaign filings required by state election officials. A local prosecutor has said the governor wasn't the focus of his investigation, but four people were indicted last year related to the flight investigation, including her former campaign finance director.
"To those of you who have supported me throughout my years of public service, I will always be grateful for the confidence you have placed in me," Perdue said. "In my remaining months in office, I look forward to continuing to fight for the priorities we share, by putting North Carolinians back to work and investing in our children's future."
She also struggled with a state economy hit hard by the recession and an unemployment rate persistently above the national average. Perdue and fellow Democrats raised the sales tax by a penny in 2009 and had to make deep cuts to education and health care.
Republicans let the temporary sales tax increase expire last summer. Just last week, Perdue proposed raising it nearly a penny again for education. At least one legislative leader called her proposal dead on arrival.
Perdue often clashed with the new Republican leadership in the General Assembly, which swept into power after the 2010 elections and gave GOP control of the Legislature for the first time since the 1870s. In a sign of the tension, she vetoed a record 16 bills last year.
Polling throughout her term has consistently shown her approval ratings hovering around 40 percent.
Perdue's re-election campaign raised more than $2.6 million in 2011 _ only slightly more than what McCrory had raised during last year _ a poor showing in a state where Democratic candidates routinely outspend Republicans in statewide elections.
A native of Virginia, Perdue moved in the 1970s to the coastal town of New Bern, where she became director of geriatric services at a hospital before entering politics. She served in the Legislature and as the state's first female lieutenant governor before being elected governor.
As word of her exit spread, several candidates said they were considering jumping into the fray, and Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton, another Democrat elected in 2008, announced he would run. Dalton had nearly $600,000 in cash on hand as of Dec. 31.
Democratic state Rep. Bill Faison, a Perdue critic, said he'll make an announcement soon, setting up a May 8 primary. He said prominent leaders in the party worried for weeks about Perdue's low poll numbers and had suggested she not run.
Former State Treasurer Richard Moore, who lost to Perdue in the 2008 primary, and Winston-Salem Mayor Allen Joines, also are considering bids. Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx also said he's considering future plans.
Candidate filing begins Feb. 13.
Longtime Washington-based Perdue pollster Fred Yang said he believed she still had a pathway to victory and knew how much she liked being governor.
"I know how hard she tried," Yang said.
Associated Press writers Michael Biesecker and Tom Breen in Raleigh and Ken Thomas in Washington also contributed to this report.