June 21, 2022

‘Hot mess’ Madison Cawthorn faces judgment day in North Carolina

HENDERSONVILLE, N.C. — In just over a year in Congress, Rep. Madison Cawthorn, RN.C., has become famous in political circles. On Tuesday, it could cost him his job.

“It’s a dirty mess,” said Susan Newman, 53, a teacher from nearby Laurel Park who voted for Cawthorn two years ago, in the parking lot of an Ingles grocery store. “I really don’t see him doing anything in the district – and he keeps getting in trouble.”

That sentiment, echoed by several voters here who spoke to NBC News, suggests Cawthorn is in danger of getting the boot in Tuesday’s hotly contested Republican primary for the 11th District seat.

But the 26-year-old first-term lawmaker has a lot going for him: the perks of office, the backing of former President Donald Trump and a field of rivals so crowded it may be difficult for any one of them. to beat him. .

Political insiders here say it’s Cawthorn’s race to lose – and if he does, it will be his fault.

That’s partly because of a striking pattern of unusual behavior: speeding without a valid driver’s license; pass a firearm through airport security; wear lingerie in photos; appearing in a video in which a staff member pantomimes a grip for his groin; twirling naked above another man in bed; accusing anonymous lawmakers of snorting cocaine and inviting him to an orgy; promote a cryptocurrency in a way that prompted critics to claim he engaged in insider trading; and call ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy “a hooligan”.

Cawthorn recorded a more than seven-minute video on March 4 to address his various lapses in judgment, run-ins with the law, and allegations he says are false or misleading. He took responsibility for the speeding and the firearm violation, but denied the rest.

“I really have never seen the swamp launch such a coordinated attack on any political individual except Donald Trump,” Cawthorn said, pointing to the American Muckrakers, a super PAC set up to help him. evict as the source of his misfortune.

The neighborhood has a strong Republican streak – rated at plus-14 for the GOP by site FiveThirtyEight — meaning the Democratic nominee will have an uphill battle to make the race competitive come November. Buncombe County Commissioner Jasmine Beach-Ferrara elevated her closest competitor in a crowded Democratic field by a 4-to-1 margin.

Cawthorn’s opponents hope the perception has taken hold that he’s courting fame at the expense of doing the basic job of a congressman — from failing to show up to vote in Washington to ignoring pleas for aid to voters.

“What concerns people here is that they don’t feel like they have a voice in Washington, D.C., because our congressman has jet-set across the country, if involving in other races, traveling to other events,” the senator said. Chuck Edwards, the most prominent of the seven Republican challengers, said in an interview at the Miles River Restaurant here that Dolly Parton’s daily “9 to 5” job was playing in the background.

The busy GOP field, which also includes well-funded Pisgah Inn operator Bruce O’Connell, could end up being Cawthorn’s saving grace.

In North Carolina, a candidate can win the primary – avoiding a runoff – by coming in first with more than 30% of the vote. That means Cawthorn just needs a substantial plurality to take the nomination.

“We’re not listening to Beltway media’s analysis of our race; we’re seeing our argument win in western North Carolina,” Cawthorn spokesman Luke Ball said in an exchange. emails with NBC News.

This argument includes Cawthorn’s “New Deal with America,” which calls for cutting annual federal spending by one-third by 2031, replacing federal income tax with a flat tax or consumption and imposing term limits on members of Congress, among other policies. .

In the context of an impending reversal of the Supreme Court’s decision Roe v. Wade who banned states from banning abortion, Cawthorn introduced a bill On Wednesday, that would require the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “wherever possible,” to include aborted fetuses in its death rate statistics. He calls it the SOULs Act.

“I get feedback from my constituents daily,” Cawthorn said in an email response when asked what he would do differently if re-elected. “Their contribution has a profound impact on my political positions and the way I operate in Washington.”

Edwards and his supporters are convinced — based on public and internal polls — that Cawthorn is slipping and Edwards is rising. Both sides say it’s a two-man race for first place.

While Edwards has one of the most conservative records in the North Carolina Legislative Assembly, his state Senate district is only about 40% of the newly reconfigured congressional district. He decided to run when Cawthorn originally chose to run for office in a nearby district and remained in the running after the incumbent changed his mind.

Both camps say Cawthorn’s switcheroo hurt him with voters in that district, which encompasses the westernmost mountainous counties in the state. This laid the groundwork for a criticism that the incumbent doesn’t pay enough attention to his constituents, and some of them say that’s true.

Kirby Johnson, owner of the sprawling Johnson family farm here, said he tried and failed to get Cawthorn to get federal help for one of his workers.

“I only asked him for one thing, and I didn’t get it – I never heard a word,” Johnson said in a phone interview. Johnson initially contributed money to Cawthorn’s re-election effort, but has since donated to Edwards. “I love Madison, but I feel a little let down.”

As a 2020 candidate, Cawthorn tore up the House’s practice of allowing lawmakers to vote by proxy during the pandemic. “Leaders show up no matter how uncertain times are,” he wrote on Twitter. “Democrats are cowards for hiding and not showing up for work.”

But since taking office in January 2021, Cawthorn has sent two dozen letters to Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, nominating various colleagues to vote for him because he is “unable to physically attend proceedings in the chamber of the House due to the ongoing public health emergency.”

This was what first caught the attention of a group of national political operatives who worked to overthrow him.

“Early on, we focused on votes,” said David Wheeler, president of American Muckrakers, a super PAC that runs the FireMadison.com website and spilled some of the Cawthorn dirt that is now circulating at the international scale. “We’ve done a good job pointing out things that Cawthorn won’t talk about and some of his opponents are afraid to talk about.”

Ball declined to comment on why Cawthorn chose to vote by proxy.

While Cawthorn’s reputation for extravagance precedes him now, even at home, he’s not a business killer for the Trump base around him.

“I hear all kinds of weird things about him,” said Bill Cunningham, a retired nurse who lives in Hendersonville and supports Cawthorn. “He looks like a MAGA guy. It’s good.”

Still, Cunningham said he was open to alternatives.

“Before voting, I will check the other candidates.”

Cawthorn’s courtship in the limelight has been a double-edged sword, even with some supporters like James Parkey, a 58-year-old truck driver from Candler.

Parkey likes that Cawthorn is willing to challenge the status quo, he said while smoking a cigar at Casablanca, a bar in Asheville’s Biltmore Village neighborhood.

“He tends to speak his mind,” Parkey said. But “I don’t know if he has any sort of attraction, because he’s checked on both sides of the aisle.”

He added that he was not worried about the videos and the photo of Cawthorn in lingerie: “What a politician does in his spare time is his business,” Parkey said.

The question is whether Cawthorn has fallen far enough, fast enough to lose on Tuesday – and it’s not clear even to his rivals that will happen.

“Of course we would prefer to have more time,” Edwards said.