As the 11th Congressional District primary elections heat up, suspicions linger about the way outgoing Rep. Mark Meadows has conducted himself and just how much he has put his thumb on the scale for candidate Lynda Bennett.

The race was shaken up when, with one day left to file, Meadows announced he would not run again in 2020, a move that brought 12 Republican candidates out of the woodwork to file.

However, one candidate — Bennett — seemed more prepared than the others to jump into the race, leaving questions regarding her knowledge of Meadows’ decision ahead of his announcement.

Now, Bennett has gained endorsements from Meadows and fellow House Freedom Caucus Chairman Jim Jordan, as well as prominent national conservative groups. While the validity of Meadows’ endorsement wasn’t initially clear, in an interview with The Mountaineer, Meadows firmly stated he is endorsing Bennett.

“I’ve known Lynda for a long time, and endorsing her is really just trying to make sure that Western North Carolina continues to have a voice in D.C. that is more aligned with the values in North Carolina than the values in D.C.,” he said.

A changing role

Not long after Donald Trump was sworn in as President, in April of 2017, he tweeted a direct threat at Meadows and Jordan, saying “If @RepMarkMeadws, @Jim_Jordan and @Raul_Labrador would get on board we would have both great health care and massive tax cuts & reform, and The Freedom Caucus will hurt the entire Republican agenda if they don’t get on the team, & fast. We must fight them, & Dems, in 2018!”

“It was meant to say, ‘well, I’m serious, we’ll find somebody to run against you,’” Meadows said in a Mountaineer story just a few days after that tweet. “What is lacking in that is I’m not fearful of doing the right thing just because I may get voted out of office. That’s the whole reason Washington, D.C. doesn’t work for the American people.”

Later in that story, Meadows mentioned that he believed he and the President would have a fruitful working relationship going forward, a prophecy that proved truer than anyone predicted.

Over the course of the last few years, Meadows has emerged as one of Trump’s most consistent allies and was even mentioned in national headlines as a possible frontrunner for the President’s chief of staff in December 2018. While Meadows had said around that time that it “would be an incredible honor” to hold that position, Mick Mulvaney was ultimately given the job.

Meadows issued the following statement after it was made public that he wasn’t going to get the job.

“I’ve had the best job in the world, representing the people of western North Carolina and working alongside President Trump these last two years to give the forgotten men and women of America a voice in their government. I’m fully committed to continuing in both of those roles. I know the President has a long list of tremendous candidates for his next Chief of Staff, and whomever it is will have my total support moving forward.”

Throughout Trump’s impeachment proceedings in the House and Senate, Meadows, who was also recently chosen to take over the top GOP spot on the House Oversight Committee, was one of eight people dubbed by the President as a defender, making numerous appearances on national television media outlets.

Last week, after Trump’s Senate acquittal, he spoke to a room full of his most ardent supporters, whom he called “great warriors.” Sitting in the front row was Mark Meadows. Trump said Meadows is one of a few people whose calls he always takes, but he also took a chance to make a light joke at his expense.

“His wife I actually like better than him, to be honest, because he doesn’t know that I know that he didn’t support me from the beginning, but she did,” he said.

Lynda Bennett, heir apparent

Within hours of Meadows’ announcement that he wouldn’t seek re-election, it was clear that Bennett, a Haywood County Republican who is good friends with Meadows’ wife, Debbie, was the person who would pick up his torch. In fact, she seemed to be the only one ready to make a run.

According to a Politico story published on Dec. 30 of last year, Bennett’s campaign website domain name had been registered on Oct. 28, apparently by Meadows’ brother, Scott. In addition, the campaign’s Facebook page was created the day before the retirement announcement.

Just as recently as a week and a half ago, Bennett was seen around the district, from Asheville to Franklin, with Debbie Meadows and Jim Jordan’s wife, Polly. Bennett even appeared alongside the two ladies and Haywood County Republican Party Chairman Ken Henson at Asheville’s Trinity Baptist Church’s Sunday morning service. When they were briefly introduced by Pastor Ralph Sexton, they were met with a subdued round of applause, a church video revealed.

Just before finishing her eligibility verification at the Haywood County Board of Elections back in December, Bennett told The Mountaineer she had been pondering for quite some time whether she would run in the event that Meadows decided to retire, but she said it was three or four years ago, when she had a conversation with Debbie Meadows, that things became more clear.

“We talked about my running,” Bennett said in December. “Pat and I have been praying about it for a long time. If it wasn’t this time, it’d have been next time.”

Bennett said last weekend that it is an honor to follow in Meadows’ footsteps and that she hopes to embrace his policies and positions to ensure the transition into his seat would be smooth, should she get elected.

“If you were a fan of Mark Meadows’ policies and positions, you’ll probably like me,” she said. “If you weren’t, you probably won’t.”

Bennett received endorsements from the House Freedom Fund and Right Women PAC (which is headed up by Debbie Meadows), and in a press release she noted that she also received endorsements from Jordan and Meadows. Not too long ago, she also met in Washington, D.C. with members of the House Freedom Caucus.

“I would seek to be included in their ranks on day one,” she said.

“One of the advantages in belonging to the House Freedom Caucus is … their strength in numbers,” she added. “If you’re going to be a true conservative in D.C., belonging to the House Freedom Caucus is essential.”

Henson pointed to a moment in Trump’s post-acquittal speech when he believes the President alluded to Bennett’s candidacy directly. While joking with the crowd, he noted that Meadows would traditionally win his district by “40 points.”

“You got someone else to run?” he asked rhetorically. “Someone else to win your district by 20 points?”

Lingering disappointment

The day before Meadows publicly announced he would not seek another term in Congress, it wasn’t him who told his staff in the district; he had former Deputy Chief of Staff Wayne King, who has since resigned from that post to run for the office, do it. King said he broke the news to district staffers over the phone.

“I was directed to tell the staff,” King said. “It was a total shock to the staff that he was not running for re-election, and it was very unfortunate that he, Congressman Meadows, was not willing to tell the staff that worked for him.”

One of those staffers was Beverly Elliott, who worked at the Haywood County district office handling constituent services. Although she had already told Meadows she was going to retire prior to his announcement, she said the news took her by surprise.

Elliott officially retired on Jan. 31, and since then, other staffers — both in Western North Carolina and Washington, D.C. — have also left. Multiple district offices now sit empty and are unable to provide those valuable constituent services.

“The Haywood County office will be open by appointment only,” Elliott said. “That’s what I was told by the chief of staff Paul Fitzpatrick and the new district director Jenny Maben in Hendersonville. It’s not my choice.”

In the Politico story about Meadows’ perceived favor toward Bennett, Hendersonville City Councilman Jeff Miller offered some strong words.

“It doesn’t take a genius to figure out how this happened. It just doesn’t,” Miller said in that story. “It just looks very suspicious.”

“It was very discourteous to other Republicans who were respecting Congressman Meadows and not primarying him for him to pull out this close to it and leave everybody in a lurch,” he added later in the story.

Aubrey Woodard, GOP Chairman of the 11th Congressional District, said he acknowledges there is still frustration with the way Meadows handled the decision and announcement.

“Mark’s performance for us in the last eight years has been stellar, so we really would be disadvantaged with anything that looks like a finger on the scales, but a lot of people are taking this that way,” he said.

“With the announcement being given on (Dec. 19), it prevented any of those people from being considered,” he added. “I think that’s the frustration that people feel. There were some very qualified potential candidates … It benefitted Lynda but it also prevented some good candidates from running.”

While Meadows has avoided commenting on this matter in the past to national media outlets, on Feb. 11, he told The Mountaineer that his decision was somewhat based on his frequent call for members of the House to be limited to four terms but even more so the impeachment of President Trump.

“My announcement that I wouldn’t run again, and the late announcement had everything to do with the impeachment fight and the vote that happened very late in our filing period for impeachment more so than rumors that there was some strategic reason behind a delayed announcement,” he said.

“There’s a lot of great candidates running, so I look forward to campaigning with whoever the Republican nominee might be leading up to the November election,” he added.

Meadows said he wanted the people of his district to know that it’s been an honor to serve.

“Truly, it’s been a humbling experience to try to make sure that their voice was heard in D.C., and to that extent, it’s been a very wonderful experience to be able to make new friends and get to know people all across the western part of the state,” he said. “I trust and I’m confident that whoever takes my place, that they will keep their priority to be serving the people of Western North Carolina as their first priority and that the people of WNC will reward them as they did me with reelection time after time.”

Going forward

At a forum featuring the candidates for the Democratic Congressional Primary held in Haywood County Monday, moderator Julia Buckner asked each candidate to write which Republican candidate they thought they would face in November. While Steve Woodsmall wrote that he didn’t care, Phillip Price wrote Lynda Bennett; Gina Collias wrote Wayne King and Moe Davis and Michael O’Shea both wrote Jim Davis.

The general consensus in Western North Carolina Republican circles is in line with the conclusions of those candidates — Bennett, King and Davis are the frontrunners.

While Bennett has confirmed endorsements from Jordan and some national-level conservative groups, Davis and King, who both firmly stated their commitment to policies put forth by President Trump, have been stockpiling local endorsements.

“I believe that a government closest to the people is the best government,” Davis said. “The endorsements closest to the people are the best. The endorsement I’m looking for is the voters, not a political powerhouse. Jim Jordan doesn’t even know Lynda Bennett. I was somewhat surprised that that endorsement was made, especially since Mark Meadows had indicated to a lot of people including myself, that he wouldn’t be endorsing any candidate.”

King also said Meadows told him he wouldn’t endorse a candidate, and Michele Presnell, who represents part of Haywood County in the North Carolina General Assembly, provided The Mountaineer with an image of a text message she received from Meadows saying he would not endorse anyone in this race.

Meadows said he changed his mind.

“As we look at any race, the dynamics of those races change, and certainly the dynamics in this race continue to evolve on a day by day basis,” he said. “I have probably been asked more about who I’m supporting than any other question over the last month or so, and (the endorsement) is not taking away from their candidacy at all, or anybody else who’s running as much as it is just trying to make sure there’s a voice that represents Western north Carolina values strongly in Washington, D.C.”

King said his endorsements have come from people he’s had contact with while serving as Meadows’ Deputy Chief of Staff in the district, a job that brought him to every county in the district to provide constituent services.

“Eight of 13 Western North Carolina Republican sheriff’s endorsed my campaign,” King said. “I’ve been the one visiting local leaders and business leaders to do constituent work all these years. I think that lends a lot of credibility to me being able to hit the ground running.”

The threshold for a run-off election is if no candidate receives greater than 30 percent of the votes, which is more likely than usual, considering there are 11 remaining candidates. Early voting begins tomorrow and election day is March 3.

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