Madison Cawthorn’s comments angered House Republicans. He was already in trouble back home

The North Carolina Republican’s comments about cocaine and orgies were only the last straw, Republicans tell Eric Garcia

Tuesday 05 April 2022 20:22 BST
(Getty Images)
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Last week, Representative Madison Cawthorn made news when House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy chastised him in a private meeting after he had accused members of Congress of engaging in orgies and doing cocaine during a podcast appearance.

“In the interview, he claims he watched people do cocaine. Then when he comes in he tells me, he says he thinks he saw maybe a staffer in a parking garage from 100 yards away," Mr McCarthy said, according to Axios.

The outlet also reported that Tim Moore, the speaker of North Carolina’s House of Representatives, and Phil Berger, the Senate president pro tempore, were hosting a fundraiser for primary challenger and state Senator Chuck Edwards.

Mr Cawthorn’s words also angered his fellow North Carolina Republicans in the US Congress. Senator Richard Burr, the state’s outgoing senior Republican, was less kind to him.

“I think that’s fine,” he said of the fundraiser for Mr Cawthorn’s primary challenger. “I think, as I said yesterday, he’s an embarrassment on given days. Just depends on if it’s a day that ends in ‘y.’”

Meanwhile, CNN later reported that Senator Thom Tillis endorsed Chuck Edwards, the state senator running in the Republican primary against the youngest member of Congress for the 11th District.

“I wasn’t aware of it but I’m OK with it,” he said, when he was informed of the fundraiser. When The Independent asked whether Mr Cawthorn should lose his primary, Mr Tillis said, “I think he’s got a stiff challenge and he might.”

Mr Cawthorn’s latest remarks also rankled other Republicans in the House GOP caucus.

“I was pleased to see it,” Oregon Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers said about Mr McCarthy’s meeting with Mr Cawthorn. Numerous other Republicans were mum about the remarks. Representative Jim Jordan, one of the co-founders of the House Freedom Caucus and one of Donald Trump’s fiercest apologists in Congress, had nothing to say when The Independent asked about his remarks.

Mr Cawthorn’s meteoric rise in Congress has also seen him become a lightning rod for controversy. Within days of his swearing in, he spoke at the “Stop the Steal” rally at the White House Ellipse that preceded the insurrection on 6 January. A month after he was sworn in, he was caught trying to carry a gun in his carry-on bag by Transportation Security Administration.

Madison Cawthorn (Getty Images)

Controversies like these have made him an enemy of liberal Democrats and a darling to the right wing in America. He’s become a featured speaker at gatherings like CPAC and is a frequent talking head on conservative television.

But it has also come at a cost. Numerous North Carolina Republicans and conservative activists spoke to The Independent on the record, saying that Mr Cawthorn’s focus on the national stage, combined with his continued attention-grabbing antics, as well as his skirting of rules and laws and forgetting the needs of his home district, mean his days in Congress might be numbered.

Mr Cawthorn, who represents North Carolina’s 11th District, seemed to come out of nowhere when he ran in a special election to replace Mark Meadows, himself a right-wing firebrand, who left his job to become Mr Trump’s White House chief of staff. Mr Cawthorn then made it to the runoff race and beat Lynda Bennett, a friend of Mr Meadows’ wife.

His compelling story as a young man whose path to the US Naval Academy ended when he survived a car wreck made him an instant star. Despite defeating Mr Trump’s chief of staff’s preferred candidate, Mr Cawthorn, who uses a wheelchair, spoke at the Republican National Convention in 2020, where he propped himself up to stand when reciting the pledge of allegiance.

It was later revealed that he falsely said that his friend had abandoned him when his friend claimed he pulled him out of the wreck and that the US Naval Academy had rejected him. Mr Cawthorn, who uses a wheelchair, also falsified his record as a paralympian.

Madison Cawthorn (AP)

Mr Cawthorn also landed in hot water when news network WRAL reported a video of Mr Cawthorn calling Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky “a thug” and said “the Ukrainian government is incredibly corrupt and is incredibly evil and has been pushing woke ideologies.” Later, when Mr Zelensky gave a virtual joint address to Congress, Mr Cawthorn did not arrive until the address was almost over.

But North Carolina Republicans say that these antics were not the reason that he is in trouble, as many times, conservatives see them as unfair attacks, John Hood, president of the conservative John William Pope Foundation and a Cawthorn critic, said.

Rather, it’s been his run-ins with the law. In March, Mr Cawthorn was charged with a misdemeanour for driving with a revoked license after he had already received two speeding tickets, as local newspaperThe Mountaineer reported. Mr McCarthy also reportedly chastised him about the driving. He landed in similar trouble when he was accused of bringing a knife onto a school property four times in as many weeks, as ABC 13 reported at the time.

“We had to pay our fine. The people of Western North Carolina do not like this attitude that the rules don’t apply to you,” one senior Republican operative in North Carolina said. Similarly, Michele Woodhouse, who is running in the primary against Mr Cawthorn, cited his carrying a knife to a school meeting.

“It’s one in a series of many,” she told The Independent. “It is between the knives and the guns and the speeding tickets with a revoked driver’s license. It’s sad and disappointing to the voters.”

A mistake that could ultimately lead to Mr Cawthorn’s downfall is that his critics allege he essentially forgot his constituents. In November, after the state legislature redrew its maps, Mr Cawthorn announced he would run in the newly drawn 13th District, which includes the Charlotte area.

In that announcement, he said “I’m afraid another establishment go-along-to-get-along Republican will prevail there,” as a pretext for his decision, which was viewed as a veiled swipe at Mr Moore, the House speaker, who was eyeing a run for Congress but ultimately passed on running. The Republican operative who requested anonymity to speak candidly said that was likely Mr Cawthorn’s undoing in Republican circles.

“What he attempted to do to Tim Moore really lost him all support of elected Republicans in North Carolina,” one senior Republican operative in North Carolina said on background to speak candidly.

What happened next further contributed to his predicament. In December, Mr Cawthorn paid a visit to Mar-a-Lago to meet with Mr Trump to show that he had endorsed Ms Woodhouse in North Carolina’s 11th District.

“Madison made the move to run in that Charlotte market,” Ms Woodhouse said. “And then reached out to me and said I want you to run as the America First candidate.”

Madison Cawthorn at CPAC (Getty Images)

But then, North Carolina’s Supreme Court tossed out the new maps and Mr Cawthorn filed to run in the 11th District while Ms Woodhouse was still in the race.

“It’s what he did to the constituents,” she said, adding that he essentially thought that, “‘I’m going to go over here and it’s a shiny penny and I can win there and I can position myself to run for Senate in 2026.’” In addition, she alleges that Mr Cawthorn closed his constituent offices.

“The people of Western North Carolina, they don’t suffer fools,” Ms Woodhouse said. “They don’t want a member of Congress who is a national embarrassment. He has proven to be unelectable.”

For some Republicans, it was a long time coming.

“He’s just an absolute fallacy,” said Republican state representative Charles Jeter Jr. “His arrogance and his hubris have finally caught up with him. At least we think it has.”

Mr Cawthorn also doesn’t do interviews in the hallways of Congress, unlike many other members. And he didn’t respond to emails from The Independent requesting comment about whether these strings of incidents would harm him. Mr Edwards did not respond either.

Ms Woodhouse warned that if Mr Cawthorn were to win his primary, it could lead to Democrats from Buncombe County, which includes the liberal town of Asheville, could take the seat. Specifically, she noted how Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, a county commissioner in Buncombe, is liberal even by Asheville standards.

“If he’s the one who comes out of the primary ... he’ll get crushed,” she said.

Mr Hood said that the best way to criticise Mr Cawthorn is to say he has bad influences and take pity on him rather than rail against him.

“In my view, if you are a right-leaning person who wants a different kind of representative for the district for Madison Cawthorn, your best strategy is not to figuratively shake your fist at him but shake your head sadly,” he said, adding that Republicans should say something along the lines of: “‘What an unfortunate situation for this young man. He’s gotten himself in over his head. Fame went to his head. He doesn’t have good friends in his world.’ That’s different from treating him as a cartoon villain.”

But Mr Jeter said that there is still a potential for Mr Cawthorn to win even if most voters don’t like him. In 2017, the state changed its law lowering the threshold for avoiding a runoff in a primary from 40 per cent to 30 per cent. He said he regrets voting for the change and wonders if there are enough voters who like Mr Cawthorn.

“Worse than that. There’s probably three or four legitimate candidates that are running,” he said. He noted how in North Carolina’s Senate race, there are fewer legitimate candidates running on both sides.

“In those races, then you get a more legitimate outcome, but when you got so many people and so many people running in opposition, my fear is they equally split the ballot and Cawthorn sneaks by with 31 per cent.”

Another advantage, Mr Hood said, is most people might not know these controversies which allows him to skate by, given the dominant news about the economy and Ukraine.

“The other one is, honestly, the lack of focus that many voters are going to have on this primary. People assume that Madison Cawthorn is the talk of the town,” he said. “ But mostly you are focused on these other things. The default is to just vote for the familiar name on the ballot.”

Instead, Mr Hood said it is important to keep the race intensely local.

“What damages him more than anything else is the disobedience of traffic and the registration of his car and the perceived lack of traditional service,” he said.

Ms Woodhouse, for her part is not worried about the runoff and said she sees Mr Edwards as a more country club Republican and Mr Cawthorn as ineffective.

“You got a bold strong conservative who has never wavered. That’s what the race comes down. There’s only one in those three who can beat Jasmine.”

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