For an election that early on garnered attention from national media and top-tier politicians, the second primary to see which Republican will advance to the general election for North Carolina’s 11th congressional district has fallen by the wayside.
Overshadowed by the coronavirus pandemic the last few months, early voting for the contest is set to start in just a couple of weeks, and the candidates, Lynda Bennett of Haywood County and Madison Cawthorn of Henderson County, are planning their final push.
Experts have predicted that even though the 11th district was redrawn to include more liberal voters from Buncombe County, the winner of this second primary is expected to win the general election. While the candidates both tout themselves as hardline conservatives, as time has gone on, several contrasts have developed.
The COVID effect
For the last couple of months, no news story remains untouched by the coronavirus pandemic and the resulting lockdowns. The race between Bennett and Cawthorn has been no different.
“It’s changed everything about campaign strategy,” said Chris Cooper, Western Carolina University political science professor. “The primary way to campaign is really old-school retail politics. Shaking hands and kissing babies still works. But clearly right now, no one wants their hand shook or their babies kissed.”
Bennett and Cawthorn, who are both first-time candidates, said campaigning has indeed been far different from how they ever imagined.
“The word that comes to mind is quiet … and I didn’t put any miles on my car,” Bennett said. “It was much more on the telephone, and I’ve been able to really focus on it every day.”
For Cawthorn, the obstacle was trying to figure out a workaround for campaigning.
“It’s been difficult, but this whole coronavirus situation has alerted people to the importance of elections,” he said, referencing how different governors have responded to the pandemic.
Bennett said she visited all 17 counties in NC-11 between the first primary and when the statewide shutdown began, but eventually things began to shift and the means of communication changed. Cooper said part of a successful campaign is being able to adapt in times like these.
“The candidates needed to respond by trying to create personal messages through impersonal means,” he said.
For Cawthorn, that has largely meant getting his face out on social media through his “New Town Square” videos. Bennett has been speaking with voters via email and over the phone. She admitted that she thinks the situation created by the pandemic benefits her campaign.
“The COVID crisis has played to my strengths,” she said, noting that she believes this is as much of an economic and constitutional issue as it is a public health issue. “I’m a business leader and have 34 years of business experience and leadership skills.”
Getting out there
Beyond the restrictions the coronavirus pandemic imposes, the two candidates have employed vastly different campaign strategies.
Bennett has shied away from events where she would appear alongside Cawthorn to answer questions, including last week’s forum, hosted by The Mountaineer, The Sylva Herald and the Cherokee One Feather.
Cooper said that while she has drawn heavy scrutiny for her absence from such events, it isn’t that abnormal for a candidate who believes they are ahead.
“I think it is traditional campaign strategy to avoid debates if you’re in the lead,” he said. “Since we don’t have any polling, what we have to go off of is the first primary where she got more votes than he did. She has more to lose in any unscripted appearance.”
Bennett said she considers her outreach to the various counties a “listening tour.”
“My solution to getting my message out there is much more complex and it involves going to every county and meeting people in every county,” she said. “What I’ve found in all my conversations is this coronavirus has caused people, because they’ve been socially distanced now for so long, they have a lot they want to tell people. They have time to think about things and they want to communicate with me. They don’t just want me telling them what I think.”
Cawthorn had some strong words regarding his opponent’s reluctance to debate and said her unwillingness to meet in a public forum was “out of cowardice.” But he also said her lack of public appearances gives him a decided advantage when it comes to controlling the narrative.
“They took a page out of Joe Biden’s playbook saying ‘lock her in the basement,’” he said.
“It’s been such a weapon in the hands of our campaign,” he added. “It’s giving us the ability to sit in the driver’s seat.”
Both Cawthorn and Bennett said they would debate Democrat Moe Davis prior to November’s general election. Cawthorn has expressed on numerous occasions a concern that Bennett’s reluctance to debate him doesn’t bode well for a potential debate against Davis.
“I’d absolutely expect she’d debate Moe Davis, and that’s what I’m afraid of,” he said. “I hate to compliment a Democrat honestly, but he would wipe the floor with her ... She would lose every single other unaffiliated voter, which is the largest voting bloc in North Carolina.”
Bennett, Cawthorn and Jim Davis were the only three candidates who hit double-digits in the first primary, and only about 3,000 votes separated Bennett, the top vote getter, and Davis, who was ultimately eliminated.
Cawthorn dominated in Henderson and Polk counties while coming away with a narrow victory in Buncombe County; Bennett won Haywood, Transylvania, Madison, Mitchell, McDowell and Rutherford counties; Davis took the six westernmost counties. Cooper said the second primary may come down to who can come away with the majority of those counties Davis had won.
“Clearly Henderson and Buncombe are going to be Cawthorn’s strengths,” Cooper said. “I think what Bennett has going for her is of course Haywood, and she also tended to come in second in far western counties where Cawthorn was third or fourth.”
“I think it’s fair to say the race will be decided west of Haywood,” he added.
Bennett said she will focus on winning over some of the voters in areas where Cawthorn had a strong showing.
“We have been working Henderson County really hard,” she said. “There are people there who didn’t support me in the last election who support me now.”
Similarly, Cawthorn said he has been happy to campaign in the far-western part of the district.
“Too often people think our district ends on the west side of Asheville,” he said. “I spent the day Thursday in Cherokee and Murphy, and we picked up seven endorsements over there.”
Cooper said the problem with a second primary election such as this is the turnout tends to be “anemic.” Only those who voted in the first Republican primary or unaffiliated voters who didn’t vote in the March election are able to cast a ballot.
“And now on top of that, we have a pandemic,” he said.
This means the challenge going forward in the next couple of weeks will be an intensive effort to drive supporters to the polls. Cawthorn said his campaign will employ a “knock and drag strategy.”
“If you need a volunteer to, they’ll watch your kids while you go vote,” he said.
Cawthorn said the key to his campaign has been the drive his volunteers have operated with.
“I think in our campaign, we put our faith and backing in our volunteer base,” he said. “We have an incredible corps of volunteers who are so passionate and so vigorous. I believe these people would go vote for me even under threat of gunfire.”
Bennett said she believes voters will see her experience as the thing that will put her over the top when the votes are counted.
“I have experience in several different business venues and leadership, hiring and making payroll, training people … and making decisions on a daily basis that only a person on the front lines who’s responsible for those other people and their employees can make,” she said. “I’m not going to go to Washington, D.C. and use it as a training ground.”
Endorsements and PACs
Perhaps the starkest contrast between the campaigns has been their endorsements. Cawthorn has raked up local endorsements from the likes of county commissioners and sheriffs, but Bennett has scored a few of the heaviest endorsements a conservative in this country can receive.
She was seemingly tapped by U.S. Rep. Mark Meadows to fill his position, and secured his endorsement, along with that of his fellow Freedom Caucus heavyweight, U.S Jim Jordan of Ohio. Most recently, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz appeared on camera to offer his support.
“It pleased me, but it did not surprise me,” Bennett said. “Ted Cruz is a big constitutionalist, and after he spoke with me, we had a lot of things in common. I was very pleased to have that endorsement. I felt like he would understand where I was coming from, and he did.”
“I have been working and getting endorsements from good, strong conservatives,” she added. “I think that helps people to understand where my values lie.”
Cawthorn said he isn’t bothered by Bennett’s national endorsements, adding that he believes support from local elected Republican officials are the ones that count because they can actually vote in the race.
Cawthorn said he is disappointed in the way Meadows handled his resignation. He resigned abruptly in December, leaving only about 24 hours for those interested to file for office. Bennett’s announcement came just hours later. Then Meadows ended up actually endorsing Bennett after telling a number of people he wouldn’t be endorsing a candidate in the primary.
Meadows wrote Cawthorn a letter of recommendation to the Naval Academy when he was in high school after he’d worked on Meadows’ Congressional campaign.
“I have a disdain for what Mr. Meadows has done in this campaign with endorsing Lynda,” he said. “But the man has been really good to me my whole life.”