Mere hours after Madison Cawthorn upset Lynda Bennett, he was thrust into the national spotlight.
Headlines from the likes of New York Times, Breitbart, CNN and Fox News made a spectacle of it: 24-year-old defeats Trump-endorsed candidate.
But the post-election statement Cawthorn sent after handily winning the GOP 11th Congressional second primary election focused on his grass-roots campaign, message of hope and new generation leadership.
As he approaches his next challenge, the road to Congress, some predict his journey may be a bit harder.
While in the second primary, Cawthorn faced a candidate endorsed by a former Congressman and current White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, as well as President Donald Trump.
In the General Election, he will square off against Democrat Moe Davis, a retired U.S. Air Force Colonel with a long history of practicing and teaching law — and with a penchant for debate.
Bennett was unavailable for comment for this story, but said she would speak with The Mountaineer next week.
A hard-fought win
The results of the contest between Cawthorn of Henderson County and opponent Lynda Bennett of Haywood came in Tuesday evening, with Cawthorn maintaining a steady 30-percentage-point lead all night.
In the end, Cawthorn won all but one county in the 11th Congressional District, Rutherford, and even bested Bennett in her home county.
The victory comes after a long and, at times, heated campaign, especially considering the primary was delayed from May 12 to June 23 due to COVID-19.
The delay required both candidates to put more time and money into the race than would have been originally necessary. The runoff election followed the first primary, held March 3, which featured a dozen candidates, making it nearly impossible for anyone to receive the 30 percent of the vote necessary to win that election.
Aubrey Woodard, chairman of the 11th Congressional District Republican Party, said he has been impressed by Cawthorn and looks forward to supporting him as he heads into the General Election.
“Madison does have a bit of personal appeal,” he said. “He’s an excellent speaker, and he’s articulate. The charisma of Madison played out quite well in both of these elections, but more so, the election yesterday. He was able to get the younger generation out. He’s provided a role model in a sense. That will be in his favor as well.”
Following his win, Cawthorn was bombarded by interviews from local and national press alike. He said he wasn’t letting that distract him from focusing on the district.
“We’re very fortunate and thankful that people of Western North Carolina put me here,” he said. “By no means am I letting this small, brief fame go to my head. I did take two days to fully embrace this victory and relish in it, to enjoy all my volunteers and my friends. My whole family is around … but this morning, we woke up around 5 a.m., and now it’s time to get back to work. I want to work just as hard, if not harder in this election against my opponent.”
With just over half of the district reporting on Tuesday night, the Associated Press called the race for Cawthorn, and just a few minutes later, stories of the victory could be found all over.
Many articles fawned over Cawthorn’s youth, mentioning he’d replace New York’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as the youngest member of Congress.
“Mr. Cawthorn will turn 25 before November’s elections, making him just old enough to be eligible to be a member of the House,” a New York Times article reads. “If he wins, he would be the youngest lawmaker in the modern history of Congress and one of the youngest ever elected.”
Many national outlets even drew comparisons between Cawthorn and the rookie New York representative in that they are both young, charismatic and hold a populist appeal, despite the fact that he has staked out his camp in the far-right.
From Sen. Thom Tillis to the head of the North Carolina Values coalition, conservatives quickly congratulated Cawthorn.
“Mr. Cawthorn ran a fantastic campaign during the primary and the runoff, and we are completely confident that next January, he will be sworn in to represent the 11th District in the House of Representatives,” said NCGOP Chairman Michael Watley in a statement. “He will be a great fighter for Smoky Mountain families and always put America first.”
Michael Biundo, spokesman for The Protect Freedom PAC, which contributed to Cawthorn’s second primary campaign and also backs Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, offered its congratulations in a statement.
“Congratulations to Madison Cawthorn on his incredible victory in NC-11,” Biundo said in the statement. “A new generation of leaders are stepping up to the plate to fight for conservative values and drain the swamp alongside President Trump. We were proud to endorse and support Madison in this campaign and look forward to seeing him build on tonight’s win and fight on North Carolina’s behalf in Congress.”
Moe Davis said the national attention focused on his opponent is helping his own campaign.
“We had our biggest fundraising day ever yesterday. So we’ve taken in over $25,000 since they announced the results Tuesday night,” Davis said. “It’s not an indicator of the district, but on Twitter, I picked up 1,100 new followers yesterday.”
A coronation rejected
While news outlets mostly made Cawthorn’s victory a story about the loss of a Trump-endorsed candidate, some people have said that for Western North Carolina voters, it was more about rejecting cronyism and the perception that Meadows tried to pass his seat along to one of his wife’s longtime friends.
Meadows announced he was not going to run for a fifth term just a day before the filing period ended. However, a domain name for Bennett’s campaign website had already been registered weeks beforehand by Meadows’ brother, Scott.
Several voters said Meadows’ endorsement of Bennett, which was made through The Mountaineer, came after he’d promised them he wouldn’t endorse anyone. That included N.C. Sen. Jim Davis, who has long represented western counties and who finished third in the first primary, barely missing the runoff.
“I talked to Mark after I filed, and that’s when he told me he wouldn’t endorse anybody,” Jim Davis said.
“I think she underestimated the resentment out there with how Mark endorsed her,” he added. “The appearance was that the fix was in because of the lateness of Mark saying he wouldn’t run and the fact that Lynda Bennett’s website had been active since late October, and the site was owned by Mark’s brother. I think she relied on those endorsements morethan she should have and the results of the runoff showed that. (The result) showed the resentment of the voters. I think Mark betrayed the voters of Western North Carolina.”
But that’s not to say Bennett didn’t try to lock down some local endorsements, as well. Jim Davis said Bennett invited him to lunch, where she asked for his endorsement, a request he denied, saying he’d told the other NC-11 candidates who didn’t make the second primary that he wouldn’t endorse either candidate.
“I don’t think it was right for Mark to endorse Lynda, especially after he told me and other candidates he wouldn’t, and I didn’t want to do the same thing,” Jim Davis said.
While Jim Davis didn’t endorse Cawthorn, in a previous Mountaineer story, he said he supports him. During early voting, a photo circulated of him holding a sign supporting Cawthorn at an early voting site in Macon County. Davis said when he showed up to the polling place to vote, Cawthorn’s mother was there and asked if he’d take the photo; then she asked his permission to put it online.
“I said ‘sure,’” Jim Davis said.
Next to Bennett’s big national endorsements, which also included Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Cawthorn had dozens of solid local endorsements, from county commissioners to sheriffs. In addition, while Cawthorn made every effort to debate Bennett, she constantly refused.
While national outlets painted Cawthorn’s win as a referendum against Trump and his endorsement of Bennett, Cawthorn rejected that take.
“I just think the people of Western North Carolina are very discerning, so they critically observed both candidates, and they voted for the person they thought would be the most effective for them in Washington,” he said. “It was just plain D.C. insider cronyism, and that’s not what the people of Western North Carolina want.”
Western Carolina University political science professor Chris Cooper agreed.
“I think it’s a repudiation of perceived cronyism,” he said. “We talk a lot about the nationalization of state and local politics, but I think this is a local party taking control.”
“Cawthorn campaigned saying he supported President Trump,” Cooper added. “He, to the best of my knowledge, never criticized President Trump, so the notion that this is a repudiation of Trump doesn’t hold water.”
Woodard seconded the assessment.
“If there was a repudiation in this vote, it was a repudiation of Mark Meadows and the way this was handled,” he said. “It was not a repudiation of Donald Trump. I think we all know Trump and Meadows are friends and Mark was calling in a favor, but I think it was done based on Mark’s assertion she was the candidate to win.”
A Presidential communication
The story of Trump’s Bennett endorsement, as reported in Axios Wednesday, isn’t much better than the Meadows endorsement. According to that story, Debbie Meadows convinced the President earlier this month to endorse her friend. Rumors of a Trump endorsement were floating around Western North Carolina well before June.
“Trump’s tweet surprised a number of people in his political orbit,” the Axios story reads. “House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy was unhappy about the endorsement and told Trump that he thought he’d made a mistake and that Cawthorn would win, according to a source familiar with McCarthy’s thinking.”
“The Republican race for NC-11 was an embarrassment of riches,” Axios wrote, quoting a source close to Meadows. “Several qualified candidates were eager to fill the shoes left by Meadows to support the pro-Trump agenda.”
As reported in a Politico story, Trump doubled down and even “released a robocall saying [Bennett] would help him ‘fight crazy Nancy Pelosi and that radical socialist liberal group trying to destroy our country.’
House Freedom Action, a leadership PAC aligned with the House Freedom Caucus, which Meadows co-founded, spent nearly $500,000 on the airwaves to boost Bennett.
Following Cawthorn’s victory party Tuesday night, he spoke with the President, who was in Air Force One flying back to Washington, D.C. from his Arizona rally. The Axios story purported that, according to “two sources familiar with the call,” “(Trump) didn’t even know Bennett.”
Cawthorn rejected Axios’ reporting of what was said on that call.
“I don’t think that was accurate,” Cawthorn said. “I’m not exactly sure how anyone got what they thought was the content of that call.”
Cawthorn was willing to relay some of what Trump did say, which included a special invitation and perhaps a hint toward a Presidential appearance in Western North Carolina.
“I was honored to be speaking to one of the most powerful men on the planet,” Cawthorn said. “We had a long conversation about what the future is going to look like, how this election is going. I said anything I could do to help him would be great. We’re hoping we’ll be able to get him down here for an event, and I will also get to go to D.C. soon to get to meet him in the Oval. That’ll be a fun experience, to see the inner workings of the most powerful house on the planet.”
Cawthorn alluded to the fact that Trump wasn’t too familiar with Bennett and said he believed the President “pulled some punches” in his support of her.
“He said he’d had a lot of people in his circle mention her qualifications and that he wanted to support her and he did so,” Cawthorn said. “But by no means was this a reflection on me … He said he looked me up after he endorsed her and that he thought I was going to be a great conservative and a great leader for our cause.”
Interestingly, Cawthorn also said he spoke with Meadows on Wednesday about visiting the White House. He claimed there was no animosity or apology on either end.
“This was not a battle,” he said. “This was nothing but a family feud, and now that feud is over, so we can all coalesce into a unit that we can take on this liberal agenda we want to beat.”
Onto the General
Since the second primary, Cawthorn and Moe Davis have been playing phone tag, and both said they exchanged a pleasant voicemail with the other. The two seem to share a mutual respect, but both sides have alluded to the fact that the campaign has the potential to get nasty.
“Go ahead and brace yourself for liberal lies,” Cawthorn said. “Unfortunately, we even saw it from within our own Republican party with some SuperPACs running some very deceitful advertising, so I’m sure we’ll see that even more in the far left.”
Many of the national stories on Cawthorn’s win paint a picture of an easy victory in the upcoming General Election. For example, Henry Olson’s opinion piece in the Washington Post called Cawthorn “the soon-to-be youngest member of Congress.”
This is in contrast to the thoughts of many in the region. The makeup of the newly redrawn 11th Congressional district is less red than it used to be, and Cooper has said before he believes it went from solidly Republican down to leaning Republican.
Moe Davis will face an uphill battle to fight against Cawthorn, but the former chief prosecutor of Guantanamo Bay said he’s ready for the challenge, especially now that the district includes highly liberal Asheville.
“Moe Davis is a strong candidate for the Democrats, stronger than they’ve had in recent years,” Woodard said.
Cooper said Cawthorn is still the favorite but that Davis has a legitimate chance at pulling off an upset.
“As Madison showed (Tuesday) night, you’ve got to wait until after the election until you determine a winner,” he said, adding that he believed Moe Davis to be the best Democratic candidate for the seat since Heath Shuler.
Cooper also said he thought Moe Davis has some ground on Cawthorn in one sense, considering he spent less money than his Republican opponent and was able to focus on the General Election. However, Moe Davis said it wasn’t as much of an advantage as he was hoping, due the to COVID-19 lockdown.
But now that he knows who he is facing, Moe Davis is hoping to get out there more with a more focused strategy.
“I think up until then, we were just kind of in a holding pattern waiting to see who the opponent was going to be. Now that we know and it’s getting attention, it’s also getting attention on the other side and getting people fired up and enthusiastic about flipping this district.”
Davis characterizes himself as a moderate liberal, a sort of pragmatic progressive.
“I find a way to annoy both extremes, and I think that puts me somewhere in the middle,” he said.
“In Asheville itself, I cannot be liberal enough,” he added. “But you drive 10 minutes in any direction and that doesn’t work, so I’m trying to thread that needle. I think my progressive positions might not be as progressive as some would like, but I believe they’re reasonable and sensible positions that are good for the district.”
Cawthorn disagreed and said his opponent was more liberal than he lets on.
“He supports things like the Green New Deal and Nancy Pelosi’s $3 trillion stimulus package,” he said. “On the surface, those both sound good. We all like the environment, and of course we want to get more people money from the government. That’d be great. But in the end of the day, what that stimulus package does and what that Green New Deal does is it basically relinquishes your control of your own private property and gives so much overreaching power that I wouldn’t define him as something moderate.”
Other national interest
As the national media has seized on Cawthorn’s victory, so too have the national parties. Woodard said he expects to see support for Cawthorn come in from the state and national party and noted that Cawthorn reached out saying he’d be seeking national support, which further belies the narrative that the General Election will be a blowout.
Likewise, Davis expects his campaign to draw national interest and support.
“We had discussions with someone from the [Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee] yesterday … we haven’t nailed anything down, but I’m optimistic we’re going to get their support,” he said.
Cawthorn said he expects a fight.
“I’m sure the Democrats would love nothing more than to keep me out of Washington,” he said. “I think they probably recognize the threat I pose to their agenda of stealing the hearts and minds of the young people of this country.”
Cawthorn said he still intends to make his value system known to all voters as often as he can.
“It’s personal responsibility and individual freedoms and making sure that we have the best Western North Carolina we possibly can,” he said. “I like expressing my love for conservatism and talking to undecided voters and trying to bring them over to our side.”
The key now will be for both men to win over as many unaffiliated voters as possible, considering that is the largest pool of voters in the state. While Davis may hold appeal to unaffiliated voters because of his moderate branding, Cawthorn showed Tuesday he could win over some unaffiliated voters simply by pulling 66 percent of the total vote in an election that included many unaffiliated voters.
Davis said that from now until November will be a “sprint” to make his case to those unaffiliated voters. He said he plans on touting his experiences in the military and government, where in both he held a host of leadership roles.
Cawthorn and Davis both said voters can expect multiple debates.
“Even before Tuesday night, his folks and my folks had talked about doing debates, so that’s one thing the folks can count on,” Davis said. “He and I will give folks a chance to listen to us and hear what our views are on the issues so they can form their own opinions there.”