Why Madison Cawthorn Lost His Race
Nearly 95% get re-elected to the U.S. House for their subsequent terms. Madison Cawthorn of North Carolina was a scandal-ridden Republican who lost his primary on Tuesday.
Cawthorn lost in one of the most highly-publicized races in America to Chuck Edwards late Tuesday night. Edwards is a North Carolina Republican state senator and small-businessman. Cawthorn was trailing Edwards at least 1.5% (or 1,319 votes) as of Wednesday morning.
Cawthorn’s loss did not come as a surprise to the state’s political experts and GOP operatives. His first two years as a Congressman saw him make a few mistakes and stumbles, which eventually defeated even his endorsement by former President Donald Trump. Since his election in November 2020, Cawthorn claimed, without evidence, that the Jan. 6 Capitol rioters were left-wing anti-fascist agitators rather than frenzied Trump supporters; he was cited for attempting to bring a loaded gun through airport security and charged with driving with a revoked license; he claimed he had been invited to an orgy in Washington and seen public figures doing drugs; and Politico published photos of him wearing women’s lingerie on a vacation.
Cawthorn’s salacious comments about orgy angered congressional colleagues. Experts say the voters were particularly hurt by the shocking lingerie photos, which were released less than one month prior to the primary. Cawthorn called them “goofy vacation photos during a game on a cruise,” but the explanation didn’t pass muster in his home state. “I’ve asked a number of people about that,” says Wayne King, former deputy chief of staff to Mark Meadows, who previously represented NC-11 before becoming Trump’s White House chief of staff. “I’ve not found one male yet that said they’ve ever worn women’s lingerie on vacation. I certainly never have.”
Edwards, meanwhile, “portrays himself as a grown up,” says Chris Cooper, professor of political science at Western Carolina University. Experts describe Edwards as a modest, religious conservative who has a reputation for staying out of the spotlight— which may have made him more appealing to North Carolina voters growing irritated by Cawthorn’s tendency to grab headlines. “In some ways,” Cooper says, Edwards’ success is “precisely because he’s not the star-power candidate.”
Cawthorn’s biggest strategic blunder, Cooper says, was creating an opportunity for Edwards and other qualified Republican candidates to get into the race at all. After Cawthorn declared that he would seek a new district, he believed it would be conservativer after the redistricting lines were drawn, Edwards was elected to run for office last November. Cawthorn changed his mind and decided to run in the current district. Edwards was forced to take his place.
Ultimately, experts say, it wasn’t just the district flip-flopping, misdemeanors, or lewd acts caught on camera that cost Cawthorn his seat. It was all of those things playing out against the backdrop of Cawthorn’s lack of policy successes and constituent services in Congress.
Cawthorn declared that he has big legislative plans. These included working across the aisle to lower healthcare costs and improving rural broadband. But shortly after he took office, he wrote a memo to Republican colleagues—which TIME obtained—saying he had built his congressional staff around “comms rather than legislation.” In other words, Cawthorn wanted to be a megaphone for the right, not a policymaker for it.
He introduced none of the 37 bills in Congress 117th. Six of the 342 bills which he was a co-sponsor became laws. It was hard for him to reach his constituents. Many of his district office were sometimes closed. Voters in his mountainous, sprawling district had to travel long distances to seek help. “This is not an urban area. It’s not easy to hop on a train and get across town,” says Cooper. “We’re talking hours, plural, to get to an office for many of his constituents. That has been a real black eye on his constituency service operation.”
Cawthorn was not only unable to prioritize his staffing needs, but he also had a weak communications plan. His response to the August 2021 flood in Western North Carolina that left thousands without power and killed many, while also injuring others. “Cawthorn’s first public comments on the matter were around 24 hours after the Pigeon River reached initial flood levels,” Western North Carolina native Callie Pruett wrote in an op-ed in the North Carolina Mountaineer that ran with a headline calling Cawthorn’s silence an “unforgivable dereliction of duty.”
Cawthorn was a complete alienator by the time he left Washington. When asked ahead of the primary if there were any local GOP leaders or Republican strategists who liked Cawthorn and hoped to see him re-elected, several state experts and politicians shared a similar answer: “I can’t think of anybody,” King said, “except the people that he’s paying.”
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