FLETCHER, North Carolina—The people who packed into an event hall on the outskirts of Asheville on Monday night for a Republican primary debate should be Rep. Madison Cawthorn’s people.
They ate up the MAGA red meat that the 26-year old congressman regularly dishes. They applauded at conspiracies of a stolen election, laughed at Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s age, and responded to candidates’ speeches with shouts of “Let’s go Brandon!”
It wasn’t long ago that nearly everyone in the room could say they were, proudly, Madison Cawthorn people. But in his 15 months in office, Cawthorn has amassed a streak of scandals, strategic misfires, and baffling statements that haven’t just tarnished the GOP faithful’s pride in him—they’ve sapped his support.
“At first, I thought it was the liberal media ganging up on him,” said Frank, an older man at the debate, who declined to give his last name. “Now, I’m thinking he’s not cut out for it.”
Richard Bennett, of nearby Brevard, admitted he was “a little disappointed” in Cawthorn.
“He seems,” Bennett said, “to have come unscrewed.”
Cawthorn himself was a no-show to hear such critiques. With the May 17 primary election looming for North Carolina’s 11th District, he skipped the Monday debate that was hosted by the Transylvania County GOP. Onstage was an empty chair with Cawthorn’s name in front.
Many of the Republicans who traveled to the Western North Carolina Agricultural Center to hear from the candidates challenging Cawthorn had, at least, decided they were finished with the incumbent.
But attendees were divided on the next critical question: Who should replace him as the GOP nominee?
They’re not hurting for choices. The seven candidates onstage seemed to offer an archetype for every GOP voter: the blunt and witty businessman, the young female Navy veteran, the seasoned state senator, the gruff sheriff and Army man, the hard-nosed party activist, the “conservative-Christian-businessman,” and, of course, the lady who said she’d immediately work with Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene.
The split field does not mean Cawthorn will cruise on to the general election.
If no candidate finishes above 31 percent, the top two will head to a June runoff election. Most insiders believe the only way Cawthorn will be defeated is if a considerable anti-Cawthorn vote materializes in the May primary, split among his seven challengers, with the best-performing taking him on in the runoff.
At the debate on Monday night, however, there were as many shots between the candidates onstage than there were attacks on Cawthorn.
At one point, Michele Woodhouse, the former chair of the GOP in the district, turned to state Sen. Chuck Edwards, the emerging favorite of the party establishment. Why, Woodhouse asked, had Edwards hired the political team of Sen. Richard Burr—the retiring Republican non grata who voted to impeach Donald Trump after Jan. 6?
“The real reason,” Edwards said, “is because he wouldn’t work for you.”
After the debate, Woodhouse told The Daily Beast that Edwards “doesn’t want to talk about his guy Richard Burr’s role in taking down Donald Trump and bringing Joe Biden to power.”
Those who agreed could pick up Woodhouse campaign bumper stickers, conveniently placed at a table on the way out of the debate, which read: “If you like Richard Burr, you’ll love Chuck Edwards.”
Plenty of Republicans in Washington are rooting for the field taking on Cawthorn. But the exchange between Woodhouse and Edwards—one of several candidate sparring matches that night—reflected a reality of the race: it’s something of a prisoner’s dilemma.
Candidates have to choose between using their precious time to attack Cawthorn and drag him below 31 percent—or attacking one or more of their other opponents to give themselves a better shot at that potential second-place spot.
Chris Cooper, a professor of politics at Western Carolina University, said the candidates have a tricky balancing act to pull off.
“The tightrope that they’ve got to walk is attacking Cawthorn without attacking the people who voted for Cawthorn,” Cooper said. “Which are, of course, the plurality of people in this district, and the majority of people who voted in the Republican primary.”
Cawthorn may have been the elephant in the room, but it wasn’t as if candidates left him untouched.
Bruce O’Connell, a local hotel owner whose campaign signs are splashed all over the Asheville area, torched the congressman for refusing to show up.
“Does he not respect you all enough to be here? To answer questions?” O’Connell asked. “Something is not right, folks… there’s something wrong when your congressman won’t show up.”
Edwards also dinged Cawthorn over his high number of missed votes in Congress. “Every time he misses a vote, this district’s voice is not heard,” he said.
And nearly every candidate went after Cawthorn for the quality of his constituent service program, which has been a sore spot locally.
By way of explaining his absence from the debate, Cawthorn’s spokesman, Luke Ball, sent The Daily Beast a statement from March in which Cawthorn committed to doing two primary debates, both of which have already happened.
“No one is entitled to a congressional seat,” Cawthorn said in his statement limiting his debate appearances, “and I welcome this opportunity for voters to hear my vision for how I plan to represent NC-11 during a second term in the U.S. House.”
Asked to respond to the opponents’ arguments on Monday night, Ball said “of course [they] are going to smear and attack the clear frontrunner dominating the race.”
But Cawthorn’s camp took particular issue with the empty chair that was left for him onstage at the debate. The congressman lost the use of his legs in a car accident and uses a wheelchair.
“I’m not sure who put an empty chair on stage as a political prop, but we consider it a personal insult to the Congressman considering he brings his own chair wherever he goes,” Ball said. “Congressman Cawthorn has been in his district at dozens of events, debates, and meetings this year. He will continue to serve despite his political opponents’ sordid attempts to disparage his record.”
Notably, however, the candidates paid little attention to the controversies that have defined Cawthorn’s reputation nationally. His allegations that GOP lawmakers like to sniff cocaine on the job and engage in group sex may have infuriated his colleagues, and sparked a rare rebuke from Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, but no candidate mentioned it.
Nor did any of the candidates mention Cawthorn’s comment that Ukraine’s president is a “thug,” or that he was booked for speeding tickets while driving with a revoked license, or attempting to bring a gun on a plane, or switching districts before returning to run in his original district.
Those hoping the Republican voters of the 11th might replace Cawthorn with a more moderate candidate are likely to be disappointed. If Cawthorn loses, Cooper said, he “will be replaced by someone who is at least equally as conservative and, arguably, more effective at working the power levers in Congress.”
Indeed, Cawthorn’s top challengers are poised, polished, and more eager to talk about nuts-and-bolts policy issues than Cawthorn.
But in front of this hardcore Republican crowd in Transylvania County on Monday night, all were working from the same Trumpy sheet music as the young firebrand congressman.
Matthew Burrill, the Asheville airport executive running as the “Christian conservative businessman,” claimed Joe Biden was the “greatest national security threat” to the country, and spoke with reverence about the “Trump family.”
Woodhouse, who brands herself as the America First candidate—though Cawthorn has Trump’s endorsement—advocated for jailing Anthony Fauci and said Biden put someone on the U.S. Supreme Court who “sympathizes with pedophiles.”
Several candidates decried the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill, brokered by Democrats and Republicans, as “socialism.”
Just one candidate in the field, Navy veteran Wendy Nevarez, is from a wing of the party that blames Trump for Jan. 6, and is frank about calling the events of that day an insurrection. She has been booed at events before; her reception on Monday was only warm when she slammed Biden for his withdrawal from Afghanistan.
With just weeks to go until primary day, Cawthorn is still considered by insiders to be the odds-on favorite. But there’s an acknowledgement that anything can happen. Cooper says he may benefit from the prisoners’ dilemma that his challengers are facing—a silver lining to his botched district-switch gambit, which lured a number of credible candidates into the race.
At this point, Republicans are bracing for more gloves to come off as candidates race to bring Cawthorn under 30 percent—and bring themselves into second place.
“I think it’ll get worse,” said Marilyn Brown, a Woodhouse supporter. “The primary is May 17. They’ve got to start to turn up the heat.”