With 12 candidates on the ballot, many expected that the Republican primary for North Carolina’s 11th Congressional District would go to a runoff, but just who made it to the runoff caught quite a few folks off-guard.
Out of a crowded field, three candidates, including Lynda Bennett of Maggie Valley, separated themselves from the pack. Bennett led the field with 22.7 percent of the vote; Madison Cawthorn finished second with 20.4 percent; and Jim Davis won 19.27 percent of the votes. No one else broke 10 percent.
Now, Bennett and Cawthorn are headed to a May 12 runoff election.
Many consider Cawthorn’s defeat of Davis to be an upset, including Chris Cooper, who heads up Western Carolina University’s political science department.
“That’s the surprise of the day, in my mind anyway, that he beat Davis and by enough that Davis conceded,” Cooper said. “Davis looks like he just wasn’t able to get a hold of the eastern counties. I think each candidate kind of pulled their home base.”
Notably, much of the territory Cawthorn claimed was only brought into the district after a three-judge panel approved the new Congressional district in December of last year. Bennett was even a bit surprised by Cawthorn’s showing.
“That seemed to be the thread most people were following because [Davis] has served for 10 years and has experience in a couple of contests,” she said.
Questions still linger for Davis, who noted that Bennett received over $550,000 of support from SuperPACs tied to the House Freedom Caucus and also an endorsement from Rep. Mark Meadows.
That endorsement came after Meadows told several people, including Davis, that he wouldn’t endorse anyone.
“I think it was a function that I got outspent 6-to-1 by Lynda, and also with Mark’s endorsement … That is a betrayal of a lot of friendships, and I just don’t understand it,” Davis said. “There’s got to be something there that is just not public yet.”
For now, Davis will continue to be involved in state issues.
“I’m looking forward to serving out my last term in the North Carolina Senate, where I’ve made a lot of great friends and was able to do a lot of good for Western North Carolina,” he added.
Cawthorn, who’s received endorsements from four of his primary opponents, initially put on social media that he’d received Davis’ endorsement, but Davis went on the record with The Mountaineer to set things straight.
“I did not endorse him,” he said. “Madison erroneously put that on his website after talking to me on election night. I’m not going to do what I accused Mark Meadows of doing by endorsing a candidate. I don’t think it’s right. I’m going to support Madison, but I’m not endorsing him.”
“Madison is an impressive young man, and he has a great future,” he added.
Davis further elaborated on his thoughts about Meadows’ endorsement of Bennett.
“I don’t get Mark Meadows claiming she was the best-qualified candidate in the race, which is total hogwash, but he has the right to do that,” he said.
“This just reeks of the coronation of a candidate, and one of the less qualified candidates in the race,” he added. “Lynda Bennett is a fine person. She’s been supportive of me in every campaign I’ve run, and I’m grateful for that.”
Ultimately, Davis said he’s simply disappointed that the voters didn’t select him, considering he was the only candidate with a legislative record.
“Congress is no place for a rookie, and I think both of them qualify as that,” he said of Bennett and Cawthorn.
Candidates weigh in
In discussing how it felt to make it through a crowded primary, both Bennett and Cawthorn said they are confident in their ability to win the runoff and the General Election. Both also believe they have what it takes to represent Western North Carolina’s interests in Washington, D.C.
“I’m really honored that I came out the top vote-getter in the primary, and I’ve just been really humbled by the outpouring of support and the thousands of people that came out to vote for me,” Bennett said.
“I really believe that it’s just a testament to what can happen if you have a dedicated team of citizens that really care about this country,” Cawthorn said of his “160 hardcore volunteers.”
“What I would tell you is I didn’t understand my emotions right when it happened,” he added. “But I’m understanding there’s the weight of a responsibility I have to the people in Western North Carolina now.”
To become the top vote-getter, Bennett had to overcome substantial negative campaigning against her, which included the distribution of an altered audio recording that purported to depict her saying she was a “never Trumper,” as well as a host of mailers and online campaigns that targeted her. Haywood County Republican Party Chairman Kenneth Henson discussed those efforts to create negative publicity.
“Before all the bad publicity, her polling was topping 40 and 50 percent against all of them,” Henson said. “They spent $750,000 in that last weekend in negative publicity.”
It has now been proven the attack ads claiming Bennett was a “never Trumper” were totally baseless, Henson said. He said the attacks have been traced to a group out of Colorado associated with the Dan Driscoll campaign.
“We’re almost positive it was a John Boehner group that spent the money against her,” he said. “They wanted a more moderate. They don’t want a conservative Republican.”
“Now that they’ve done all the attack ads, they’ve done all they can do,” he added. “It will be hard to beat her now. People are finding out about the lies and are mad.”
But Cawthorn isn’t too preoccupied with any of that. He said he doesn’t have an interest in running any kind of a smear campaign but would rather gain supporters and energize a hopefully growing base.
“We’re going to win in silence,” he said. “We don’t want to be arrogant … We’ve felt like a stealth bomber sneaking under the radar.”
But Cooper said he thinks the time has come for Cawthorn to go under the microscope.
“The heat’s going to get turned up on Madison Cawthorn pretty quickly,” he said.
“I’ve lived my life as much as I can according to God’s rule, so they can’t bring too much against me that’s true,” Cawthorn said.
While both Cawthorn and Bennett tout themselves as staunch conservatives and Trump supporters, Bennett comes into the runoff with the support of the House Freedom Caucus, as well as that hefty Meadows endorsement. In addition, there has been a rumor that President Trump himself may end up throwing an endorsement her way.
“I think that’s certainly possible that [Trump] would throw his support behind her,” Cooper said. “Meadows still has a pretty big war chest, too.”
While Bennett didn’t comment specifically about that endorsement, she said that she generally welcomes endorsements from conservatives in Washington, D.C., including members of the House Freedom Caucus.
“I would appreciate and be honored if they do. I would seek their endorsements, but I am going to be doing more local fundraising,” she said. “That’s more the aspect of the job that I can control.”
Cooper said he believes there will indeed be a lot more fundraising going on leading up to the runoff election. While many believe Bennett will receive more support from Super PACs, Cawthorn, who loaned his own campaign $281,000 during the primary campaign, said he will focus more on gaining individual contributions.
“We’re ratcheting up the fundraising effort,” he said. “I loaned myself the money because I believe I’m doing the right thing, and I love America that much. I am looking for support, so I would like all the financial support I can get.”
“I think what we’re going to see (with Bennett) is that out of state PAC money … that’s the only thing propping her up, is that PAC money,” he added. “It’s the D.C. swamp.”
In addition, Cawthorn said he would like to participate in debates and forums with Bennett “whenever, wherever.”
“The biggest difference is that I want to be beside my opponent as much as possible,” he said. “I believe that is the best way the voters will make an informed decision. The way to do that is to see both candidates side by side.”
Bennett is hearing different from her prospective supporters.
“The people I’m speaking with say they’ve had enough forums, so I’m not getting the same feedback he’s getting,” Bennett said. “People want me to focus on what’s important to them, they want me to listen to what their concerns are. There are 17 different counties with 17 different problems that need to be addressed … and we’ve barely begun to scratch the surface. They don’t want to hear two talking heads in a room with two-minute limits. They want us to talk to them and listen to what they have to say. That’s what I’m hearing loud and clear. I’m not talking to the same people he’s talking to apparently.”
Voters can participate in the runoff election if they are either registered Republicans or are unaffiliated voters who did not participate in the Democratic primary. That election is scheduled for May 12.