North Carolina freshman Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R) was one of the biggest surprise winners of the 2020 election – upsetting then President Donald Trump’s endorsed candidate in the Asheville-area district once held by his chief of staff Mark Meadows.
His personal story – a paraplegic following a teenage car accident – his youth (he was elected at age 25) and his good looks all combined to make him an immediate national, figure within the GOP.
But that image has taken a major hit in recent months. The Washington Post published an exposé earlier this week detailing a number of falsehoods in Cawthorn’s personal story and CNN reported on accusations by several women that Cawthorn behaved inappropriately with them during college. Cawthorn has denied the allegations.
I wanted to get a better sense of who Cawthorn was and what his district’s voters made of all the publicity – positive and negative – he’s drawn over the past six months or so. I reached out to John Boyle, a columnist at the Asheville Citizen Times. Our conversation – conducted via email and lightly edited for flow – is below.
Cillizza: Cawthorn became a massive national story when he beat Trump’s endorsed candidate last year. Was he a known commodity in the district before he won?
Boyle: Not at all.
He seemed to gather some steam during the primary, where he came in second behind Lynda Bennett. But I know I hadn’t heard of him beforehand, and most folks I know had never heard of him, either. I’ve been in the Asheville area for 26 years now, by the way.
I think his age and lack of experience play a major role with his relative anonymity previously. Historically in the 11th Congressional District, most candidates, both Democratic and Republican, are older, established in a career, have some name recognition and often have served in some elective office before running. Some, like Heath Shuler, have tremendous name recognition from sports or other endeavors. Mark Meadows, Cawthorn’s predecessor before leaving to become Trump’s chief of staff, was a well-known businessman and prominent in Republican circles before he ran for Congress.
Cawthorn had brief work experience at a Chick-fil-A and as a part-time worker in Meadows’ office here in the district, but that’s about it. He really was a political novice.
Cillizza: Cawthorn seems to ping pong between promising to reach across the aisle and embracing the worst conspiracy theories of Trumpism. So, who is he, really?
Boyle: Boy, that’s a million-dollar question. He seems very susceptible to conspiracy theories, and he really seems to crave the limelight. For someone with a serious dearth of real-world and political experience, that’s not a good combination, in my opinion.
On the one hand, he seems very sincere in his conservative convictions and his respect for the Constitution. On the other hand, as evidenced by his “Cry more, Lib” tweet on Election night, he seems incredibly immature and disrespectful toward the left end of the political spectrum, or even the middle. Cawthorn seems to fully embrace far-right policy points and rhetoric, and he shows almost no interest in reaching out to moderates or progressives. He also has a serious problem with telling the truth, as the Citizen Times, AVL Watchdog and other outlets have reported, but he’s also supremely confident and unapologetic.
Cillizza: Cawthorn has been a national lightning rod – for both sides – since he won. The Hitler controversy. Allegations about inappropriate behavior with women. What do voters in the district make of all of this?
Boyle: I certainly can’t speak for all voters, and I’m sure plenty of voters, particularly those in more rural counties where Cawthorn won with more than 70% of the vote in some cases, probably like his fighting spirit. Asheville has been described, by a former colleague of mine, Dave Russell, as “Berkeley surrounded by Mayberry surrounded by Jesse Helms.”
That’s the best description I’ve heard of the 11th Congressional District. Get outside of Asheville, a liberal haven, and it is very conservative country. I doubt conservative voters farther out in the mountains subscribe to all of the conspiracy theories and notions Cawthorn seems to embrace, but I would guess plenty of them believe in parts of it and have an innate distrust of the media and the federal government. This area is known for its independent streak and not wanting the government to interfere in their lives, so I think Cawthorn’s message and fighting spirit probably resonate with many voters.
Cillizza: Is Cawthorn in any political danger in his district? Or is his popularity with the Trump wing ensure that he has the seat for as long as he wants it?
Boyle: He does have a problem with some key Republican power centers, including Henderson County, just south of Buncombe County and Asheville. Former Henderson County Sheriff George Erwin Jr. disavowed Cawthorn after the January 6 insurrection and apologized for steering fellow members of law enforcement toward him. That’s a serious blow.
Cawthorn has also caught heat from Chuck Edwards, a [Republican] state senator. But, the district is heavily Republican. Cawthorn’s main political danger lies in being primaried by another candidate who capitalizes on Cawthorn’s mistakes and foibles while promising the standard conservative red meat the district relishes.
I fully expect Cawthorn to have multiple primary challengers in 2022. While Shuler won the district as a Democrat (it was slightly different in geography then), he was a very moderate Democrat and a major sports hero (University of Tennessee quarterback and former NFL player). Whoever wins the Republican primary in 2022 will be the prohibitive favorite to win the general election.
Cillizza: Finish this sentence: “In a decade, when Madison Cawthorn is 35, he will be __________. ” Now, explain.
Boyle: “…running for president, or running a Chick-fil-A.” (No dig there, by the way – I love me some Chick-fil-A.)
Cawthorn seems incredibly ambitious to me, as well as remarkably confident and even a little cocky. He clearly lacks work and life experience, as well as higher education, but he’s also very adept at playing the role of political outsider.
I don’t think he sees his lack of experience or education as a hindrance. Also, he seems to feed off the attention he’s received, and his devotion to “comms” over legislation speaks to his strategy of projecting an image to voters he believes will resonate. Whether he’ll succeed depends on whether he makes it through the primary in 2022, and if American voters decide they want more from a politician than pablum and photo ops.