As Republican Madison Cawthorn accumulates more negative press, the prospect of running to unseat the 25-year-old congressman grows more appealing for Democrats.
Most recently, Buncombe County Commissioner Jasmine Beach-Ferrara announced she’d run to represent North Carolina’s 11th congressional district, and within 24 hours, she raised $100,000. But quick conversations with numerous prospective candidates reveals she likely won’t be alone.
Cawthorn was elected to the seat after Mark Meadows — who eventually became President Donald Trump’s chief of staff — announced he’d not run for another term mere hours before the filing period closed. While a whole slew of Republican candidates turned out, Cawthorn, a relatively unknown underdog emerged to win, first in two Republican primaries, then in the General Election against Democrat Moe Davis.
But since Cawthorn took office, he’s been hit with a wave of bad press both locally and nationally, leaving an opening for a Democrat, or maybe even a Republican primary challenge, to defeat him.
The first to dive in
While both Davis and Josh Remillard, who lost a 2020 bid to represent North Carolina’s 117th district in the state house of representatives, have indicated through initial FEC filings a potential interest in running for congress, the first Democrat to launch a campaign was Commissioner Beach-Ferrara.
“I am so appreciative of everyone who has stepped up during the first day of this campaign,” she said in a press release regarding her substantial early fundraising effort. “This campaign is going to be focused on love and empathy and organizing in every single community of this district. This is not going to be an easy race, but we are off to an incredible start towards building the kind of organization that can win in NC-11.”
Beach-Ferrara is also known as an effective organizer through her work running the Campaign for Southern Equality. In an interview with The Mountaineer, she said she hopes to use those skills to affect policy change.
“I’ve been elected twice as Buncombe County commissioner and have worked on critical issues in Western North Carolina, including early childhood education and the opioid crisis,” she said. “I’m also working alongside Republican and Democratic colleagues to build strong policy solutions to some of the biggest problems facing NC-11 and the nation.”
“There’s a sense of urgency but there’s also a real sense of hope,” she added. “That’s the approach we’re taking as we build this campaign. We’ll be powered by everyday-people who are rolling up their sleeves and getting to work.”
Beach-Ferrara said that as a gay woman and Christian minister, she will bring a unique perspective to the campaign.
“Faith is a bedrock part of my life, and it’s where my community service starts,” she said.
It’s obvious that a major focus of Beach-Ferrara’s campaign is to attack Cawthorn’s character and record.
“I’m running to offer a clear alternative to Madison Cawthorn, as well as the typical Democratic campaign this district has seen,” she said.
To run or not to runMeanwhile, Davis, a retired Air Force colonel and former Guantanamo Bay chief prosecutor, has been retweeting negative news stories on Cawthorn and even tweets from others urging him to run in 2022. However, when asked directly if he’d declare his candidacy, he pumped the brakes.
“My inclination is I would prefer not to run,” he said, adding that he doesn’t even know whether it’s possible for a Democrat to win as the district is currently drawn.
But Davis, who lost by 12 points to Cawthorn in 2020, also hasn’t entirely closed that door, and a lot can change quickly when it comes to congressional campaigns.
“It’s hard to tell how it’s going to look down the road,” he said, his tone shifting to something more optimistic. “One of the problems in 2020 was COVID-19. We didn’t have the ability to go knock on doors like we needed to.”
Another candidate whose name lingers on the lips of regional Democrats is Gina Collias, a former Republican turned Democrat who came in second in the 2020 Democratic primary, finishing about 25 points behind Davis.
“I care about Western North Carolina deeply, and I care about our democracy, and I care about voting rights, and I care that we work together because I think we can do better,” she said. “We need a representative that’s not divisive.”
Davis highlighted that he won more precincts than the likes of Beach-Ferrara and Remillard within the specific districts they ran (Davis and Remillard actually won the same amount) but noted that one candidate, state house representative Brian Turner of Candler, did better than him within his district.
While Turner, whose name is frequently brought up as a potentially strong congressional candidate, didn’t rule out the prospect of running, when speaking to The Mountaineer, he seemed even less likely than Davis or Collias to make a go of it.
“I’m always open to ideas of how to serve the people of North Carolina,” he said.
Democrats around Western North Carolina have buzzed for the last few weeks that a Henderson County candidate may enter the race and that he could potentially be backed by a few big names. That person is Eric Gash. Although Gash hasn’t yet formally declared, there is an energy already building around his potential run.
Gash, who played outside linebacker at the University of North Carolina, has been a football coach, athletic director, elementary school principal and a pastor. While there hasn’t been a lot of press coverage on Gash, an August 2020 Mountain Express story on religious leaders becoming involved in social justice featured him heavily.
In that story, Gash, a Black man, said he didn’t consider himself an activist but that the killing of George Floyd opened his eyes.
“I’m almost ashamed to say I’ve never spoken at a protest rally. I’ve never marched — nothing,” he said. “Being Black in America, we’ve learned to overlook things, look past things, give folks the benefit of the doubt.”
The GOP side
It isn’t just Democrats who are mulling a run at Cawthorn. One name that comes to mind as a potential candidate is Lynda Bennett, who has filed an FEC document that could indicate a potential 2022 run. Bennett, despite receiving endorsements from Meadows and President Donald Trump, lost to Cawthorn in a second primary by 31 points.
“As of now, I’m not planning on running,” Bennett said.
The other Republican who challenged Cawthorn and Bennett, but ultimately fell short in the first primary is former state senator Jim Davis. Although Davis said some people had approached him hoping he’d consider a run, it’s not going to happen.
“Not only am I not planning on running, but I absolutely will not run,” he said.
But with Cawthorn getting hammered over a slew of controversies, many Western North Carolina Republicans have said behind closed doors and publicly that they are not happy with his conduct. And it isn’t just issues from Cawthorn’s past that are creating problems for the young lawmaker. He found hot water just a few days after he was sworn in when he spoke to the crowd at the Stop the Steal rally mere hours before the Capitol insurrection.
“This crowd has some fight in it,” Cawthorn told the large throng of Trump supporters.
With that in mind, Western Carolina University political science professor Chris Cooper, who heads up that department, pointed out that not all press is good press. While Cooper admitted it’d be hard to beat Cawthorn as an incumbent, there is potential for a strong primary challenger.
“There are rumors that Chuck Edwards is interested in the seat, and I think it’s fair to assume that if Cawthorn had a cleaner introduction into congress, we wouldn’t be talking about a legitimate primary challenge,” Cooper said.
While it isn’t known if Edwards, a Republican with a strong track record as a state senator, will actually run or not, he wasn’t afraid to publicly criticize Cawthorn following the insurrection.
Edwards, who is from Henderson County and could potentially fracture Cawthorn’s base there, issued the below statement on Jan. 12:
“There’s a right way and wrong way to conduct yourself as a legislator, and I’m incredibly concerned about Congressman Cawthorn’s conduct. Like many people, I share serious concerns about Americans’ confidence in our election system’s integrity. I intend to work with my colleagues in Raleigh this year to pass legislation to address the concerns I hear from North Carolinians.
Congressman Cawthorn’s inflammatory approach of encouraging people to ‘lightly threaten’ legislators not only fails to solve the core problem of a lack of confidence in the integrity of our elections system. It exacerbates the divisions in our country and has the potential to needlessly place well-meaning citizens, law enforcement officers, and elected officials in harm’s way. As a legislator, I don’t need to be threatened to do the job the voters hired me to do.”
Edwards could not be reached for comment. While Cawthorn’s communications staff initially indicated he’d be available for an interview, he was unable to be reached.
Census data is typically delivered to lawmakers around April. That data is subsequently used to create new maps for various districts, including congressional districts. But now that the data won’t be made available to lawmakers until the end of September, if any candidate wants to have a hope of winning, they’d likely have to take a leap of faith without even knowing what the new NC-11 may look like or even when the primary will be held.
Cooper said that while the delay has a bigger effect on state legislative races — considering those candidates must live in the district they wish to represent — it will still matter for congressional elections.
“It could have downstream effects on NC-11,” he said.
Since North Carolina is expected to add a 14th congressional seat, NC-11 will likely be a bit smaller, and whether or not certain Democratic strongholds like Asheville or Watauga County (which is currently in NC-5) are included could determine whether or not a Democratic victory is even viable.
Moe Davis said the mystery surrounding the potential makeup of the district has given him further cause for hesitation.
“Unfortunately, because of Trump screwing around with the census, it’s going to be fall before the data’s available and the legislature gets down to business,” he said.
“I would love to see a genuine mountain district because we have more in common with Watauga than we do with Rutherford,” he added.
Cooper pointed out that there are limited options for how the district could look, though, considering its geographical location.
“NC-11 is hemmed in on two sides,” he said, adding that no matter how you draw it, it’s going to favor Republicans.
If Buncombe County remains entirely in NC-11, it’ll yet again provide a tremendous boost to whichever Democrat advances to the general election, but the more potential a Democrat may have, the more candidates from that party may run. If the Democratic primary features a large field of candidates, Cooper noted that could make things even tougher against the Republican candidate
“It’s going to be more difficult for the Democrats to win in that case, especially if it gets nasty,” he said. “A Democrat will emerge — we know that — and the more they get beat up in the primary, the more it’s going to hurt them in the general.”