It’s been a campaign of ups and downs for Madison Cawthorn.
Ever since winning the second Republican primary election by a landslide to make it race to replace Mark Meadows as the 11th Congressional District representative, the 25-year-old political newcomer has faced both praise from the highest levels of his own party and mounting scrutiny.
Learning the ropes
Cawthorn’s meteoric rise during the first primary was fueled partially by a massive $281,000 donation from his personal funds to his own campaign. He caught many off guard, including N.C. District 50 Sen. Jim Davis, who many considered to be a front runner in that race. In the end, it was Cawthorn and Lynda Bennett who emerged as the top two vote getters.
In the second primary, it seemed that Cawthorn was facing an uphill battle against Bennett, who received more than $1 million from super-pace, including the House Freedom Caucus, as well as high-profile endorsements from President Donald Trump and Meadows, who resigned to serve as White House Chief of Staff.
Cawthorn said the same “knock and drag strategy” that led to success in the primaries will be deployed in the General Election against Democrat Moe Davis, who some have called the best candidate that party has put forward since former Congressman Heath Shuler.
With this strategy, Cawthorn said a massive force of volunteers on the ground would knock on as many doors as possible and drag as many people as possible to the polls to cast a vote for the young upstart.
“Our strategy is tested,” he said. “It’s all about voter turnout.”
“You can poll 20 points ahead of me. I will turn out 100 percent of the vote while other people normally turn out 70 percent of the vote,” he added.
Such is one of the advantages of enduring the arduous process of campaigning during a second primary as the underdog.
“It made me an exceptionally better candidate,” he said of the runoff election.
Cawthorn and Davis squared off to debate three nights over the last week. The first two nights were hosted by Mountain Xpress, Blue Ridge Public Radio and Smoky Mountain News while the most recent debate was hosted by Southwestern Community College.
The Mountaineer spoke with Cawthorn following the first two debates but prior to the third. Cawthorn said he believed he had a stronger performance during his second debate than his first.
“I think it was a bloodbath the first night, a lot of partisan politics, but then I felt stronger,” he said.
While Cawthorn has often adopted far-right platforms when it comes to many of the hot-button issues, he seemed to soften his tone on some issues during the debate. For example, he said “Black lives matter” during each of the debates last weekend. When asked whether he supports Black Lives Matter, he said he supports the message.
“They respond all lives matter, but if all lives matter then Black lives don’t matter,” he said. “Right now the conversation is about Black lives mattering.”
However, he does not approve of the movement that has emerged.
“The Black Lives Matter Movement is a radical Marxist movement,” he said.
During the debates, Cawthorn also voiced his concern for the environment and said that more needs to be done to stem the detrimental effects of climate change, which he has also mentioned in the past. However, he admitted that he’s received some flak from conservatives for espousing those more moderate positions.
“I’m not saying I’m brave, but it took a little bit of courage to say that as a Republican candidate,” he said. “A lot of people on the right might say that’s not conservative enough.”
“There are policies where I’m hard-right,” he added. “For example, if we’re talking about firearms and abortion and the role of government in our lives.”
The good and the badOver the last couple of months, Cawthorn has gained national recognition. Beginning with a Presidential phone call straight from Air Force One on the night of his second primary win. In a Mountaineer story following his victory, Cawthorn recalled what the President had told him.
“I was honored to be speaking to one of the most powerful men on the planet,” Cawthorn said in that story. “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.”
Before long, that came to fruition, and Cawthorn met with Trump in the Oval Office. During the President’s recent visit to Henderson County, he sung Cawthorn’s praises onstage during a brief speech.
“If I had a face like that, I would have been President 20 years ago,” he said, adding that Cawthorn will be a “star” of the party.
Perhaps Cawthorn’s biggest moment so far has been speaking at the Republican National Convention, which he said was Rudy Giuliani’s idea.
“I mentioned Trump just one time, and I tried not to talk about Republican values or Democratic values,” he said. “I wanted a message most people would believe in.”
While Cawthorn has been in the spotlight within his own party since his win over Bennett, he’s also been at the center of numerous small controversies that could add up in the mind of voters to paint a concerning picture.
First, a story posted by World Magazine, a Christian publication, aired complaints from three women about uncomfortable sexual situations they said Cawthorn put them in. In that story, the friend of one woman accusing Cawthorn of impropriety said “[her friend] was upset because he was forceful—wasn’t letting her out of the car and he kept saying, no one would find out. She had a boyfriend at the time, she was freaking out.”
“We were friends a long time ago,” Cawthorn said of the women who made the accusations. “I know they are very far-left leaning. I have never acted sexually inappropriate.”
In addition, AVL Watchdog, a newly formed nonprofit comprised of numerous Pulitzer Prize winning journalists, has published a few stories that call Cawthorn’s character and judgment into question. For example, one story focuses on Cawthorn’s claim that his plans to go to the Naval Academy were derailed after a car accident left him paralyzed.
However, that story references court records following the crash that explicitly state he was denied admission from the prestigious academy.
Others have aroused suspicion that Cawthorn may have white supremacist leanings, specifically citing his business name, SPQR Holdings, LLC. SPQR, which is an abbreviation for Senātus Populusque Rōmānus (The Senate and People of Rome), and refers to the government of the ancient Roman Republic. However, in recent years, it has been co-opted by white supremacists.
“I even had CNN and the Anti-defamation League come to my defense over the SPQR thing,” Cawthorn said.
Cawthorn admitted he’s been frustrated by the bad press he’s received and accusations that diminish his character in the eyes of the public.
“It’s very frustrating because it makes you wonder what is the use of being a good person,” he said. “Just knowing that they are lies, it’s deceit from the other side, makes it easier to deal with. My character, my heart, is very singularly focused. I want to be helpful in this world. That’s all we want to do.”
Cawthorn said he believes the negative stories — which in AVL Watchdog’s case have been thoroughly vetted and explained — boil down to Democrats doing what they can to gain the congressional seat, something he said isn’t going to happen.
Moreover, Cawthorn said that because he doesn’t plan on toeing the party line and joining the Washington establishment or the “cowards in Congress,” some who are already in power may be trying to put a thumb on the scale.
“I’ll be my own man. I won’t be a foot soldier,” he said. “At the end of the day, I kind of want to burn it down … I think a lot of people in Congress kind of welcome it because they think there are a lot of problems in Congress.”
(Coming Wednesday: Watch for an interview with Democratic congressional candidate Moe Davis.)