Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino is taking yet another step closer to a full blown challenge to Gov. Andrew Cuomo by opening an exploratory committee and poaching a staffer from the state GOP to run it.

Astorino spokeswoman Jessica Proud confirmed the formation of the exploratory committee, which is expected to be complete by the end of the week. She also said state GOP Executive Director Michael Lawler will be departing his party post to head up the committee on Astorino’s behalf.

“He is taking the appropriate steps to prepare for a statewide campaign,” Proud said of Astorino.

Lawler, a Rockland County native, started working for the state GOP in Noevmber 2009 as a member of its field staff, and then served as political director from July 2011 until his appointment as executive director in December of that same year.

He worked on Sen. John McCain’s 2008 presidential run, and also played a role in the surprise victory of former GOP Rep. Bob Turner in the September 2011 special election for former Democratic Rep. Anthony Weiner’s Brooklyn/Queens seat. (Turner subsequently ran in a there-way GOP primary for the right to challenge Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand in the 2012 general election and lost).

Astorino’s selection of Lawler will no doubt raise a few eyebrows inside the state GOP, since it further solidifies the belief that the county executive is state Party Chairman Ed Cox’s favored candidate. He’s also not universally liked among the GOP rank-and-file, having rubbed a few people the wrong way with his aggressive approach.

The chairman isn’t technically supposed to play favorites in a potential primary situation, but he certainly has done so in the past – think back to the 2010 campaign when he wooed Democratic Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy into the race to challenge former Rep. Rick Lazio. Levy failed to get onto the ballot at the convention, and Lazio was subsequently defeated in a primary by Buffalo businessman Carl Paladino.

Proud said that Lawler’s hiring had nothing to do with his relationship with Cox, insiting that Astorino “has known Mike for a long time and really respects him as a talented hardworking guy knows the state really well.”

“We need someone right now to be responsible for day-to-day organization, and Mike is someone that would be great at that,” Proud added.

Proud could not provide an exact start date for Lawler, who did not respond to an email seeking comment. His new job will likely coincide with the formal formation of Astorino’s exploratory committee.

While Astorino has not yet formally announced his candidacy, he has made a number of clear indications that he is highly likely to run – regardless of the fact that Paladino, the 2010 GOP/Conservative gubernatorial candidate, has threatened to challenge him on the Conservative Party, effectively splitting votes on the right and making a long-shot change of ousting the popular and well-funded incumbent governor all the more difficult.

Astorino is also apparently not buying Donald Trump’s pledge that he will run for governor and unite the Republican and Conservative parties if only the party leaders unite behind him and promise he will not have to fight for the nomination.

UPDATE: According to Capital NY’s Jimmy Vielkind, county chairs will be getting the news about Lawler during a 4 p.m. conference call this afternoon. Other staffing changes are in the mix, too. According to one GOP operative, it’s possible that Jason Weingartner, currently the finance director, will be promoted to take Lawler’s place.

UPDATE2: The state GOP put out an announcement confirming that Weingartner will indeed be the new executive director. Also, the party’s Coalitions Director Ore Jacinto will be the new finance director and Asian Outreach Director Oliver Tan will take over as coalitions director.