On paper, the Republican candidate should win easily in western North Carolina’s 11th Congressional District. The area has some left-leaning voters in places like Asheville, but it’s generally regarded as a safe red district.
In a GOP stronghold like this stretch of the North Carolina mountains, an incumbent Republican congressman should not have to expect much serious competition in a primary. But Rep. Madison Cawthorn is anything but a typical incumbent.
The 26-year-old Republican has become a divisive figure in western North Carolina, in Congress and even in his own party. He’s branded himself as an unapologetic supporter of former President Donald Trump and as one of the faces of the new, younger generation of “America First” candidates.
He’s made headlines in recent months for legal troubles and gaffes. He was caught trying to board a commercial plane with a loaded handgun last summer. This week a story surfaced that Cawthorn had been cited for driving with a revoked license, and got two other tickets for driving faster than 85 mph in his home district.
“This is behavior that is in keeping with Madison Cawthorn. He’s, some might say, ‘reckless,’ some might say, ‘outside the box,’” said Chris Cooper, a political scientist at Western Carolina University. “Driving without a license, I don’t think anyone saw that coming. At the same time, I don’t think anyone thought that was out of character for Madison Cawthorn.”
Cawthorn spokesman Luke Ball responded to the reports on the traffic citations Wednesday.
“Our office expects the traffic matters to be resolved quickly, and we remain focused on serving the constituents of NC-11," he said in a brief written statement.
The latest gaffe came to light Wednesday, with a video of Cawthorn over the weekend calling Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy “a thug” and the Ukrainian government “incredibly evil.” Cawthorn’s comments were initially reported in a Wall Street Journal op-ed from longtime GOP strategist Karl Rove.
Cawthorn responded to the criticism of his comments on Twitter Thursday.
"The actions of Putin and Russia are disgusting. But leaders, including Zelensky, should NOT push misinformation on America," he said. "I am praying for Ukraine and the Ukrainian people. Pray also we are not drawn into conflict based on foreign leaders pushing misinformation."
Propaganda is being used to entice America into another war.— Rep. Madison Cawthorn (@RepCawthorn) March 10, 2022
I do not want Americans dying because emotions pushed us into a conflict.https://t.co/1IWJ33Tgqd
“The Congressman was expressing his displeasure at how foreign leaders, including Zelensky, had recently used false propaganda to entice America into becoming involved in an overseas conflict. He supports Ukraine and the Ukrainian president’s efforts to defend their country against Russian aggression, but does not want America drawn into another conflict through emotional manipulation,” Cawthorn's spokesman said.
“Given all that’s transpired, with his flirtation with the 13th District to his repeatedly challenging the Republican establishment, to these most recent revelations about his reckless behavior, the Republican primary in the 11th is competitive,” Cooper said.
Late last year, Cawthorn announced he would be running in what was then called the 13th District, which included part of his current district and counties to the east toward Charlotte. After the initial round of redistricting, that was seen as a very strong Republican district.
But the districts have changed several times and the primary delayed as the courts settled questions about whether the new political maps were fair. The North Carolina Supreme Court tossed out the maps and ordered them redrawn. Special masters with a trial court in Wake County drew the final maps for the 2022 congressional elections.
After the new congressional map got final approval, Cawthorn switched back, opting to run for reelection in the 11th District. But the problem now is that there are two “America First” style candidates on the primary ballot: Cawthorn and Michele Woodhouse, who Cawthorn endorsed in the race and donated money to.
“If Madison Cawthorn had not toyed with running in a different district, I think you would have a much smaller challenger field, and a challenger field that isn’t nearly as threatening,” Cooper said.
Cooper said Woodhouse is running a strong campaign in western North Carolina and could split the pro-Trump “America First” vote with Cawthorn.
There are also more traditional Republican candidates vying for the nomination in the May 17 primary. State Sen. Chuck Edwards is a strong “establishment” candidate, Cooper said. The Henderson County Republican is in his third term in the North Carolina Senate.
The other candidates for the Republican primary are Rod Honeycutt, Wendy Nevarez, Bruce O’Connell, Kristie Sluder and Matthew Burril.
Edwards criticized Cawthorn’s Ukraine comments Thursday, though without actually mentioning the congressman’s name.
“Let’s be clear. The thug is Vladimir Putin. We must unite as a nation to pray for President Zelensky and the brave people of Ukraine who are fighting for their lives and their freedom,” he tweeted. “Anything less is counter to everything we stand for in America.”
Woodhouse tweeted a similar message Thursday: “That a US House Member would call President Zelenskyy ‘a thug’ and Ukraine’s government ‘incredibly evil’ is an out of touch, boorish, Washington politician! I agree with President Trump that Zelensky is a ‘hero!’”
There are eight candidates running for the Republican nomination in the 11th. There are also six Democrats vying for the nomination in the district.
The big question in Cooper’s mind is whether one of those candidates can get the 30% plus 1 votes needed to avoid a runoff. But Republicans in the district are no stranger to runoffs in congressional primaries.
“Madison Cawthorn had to go to a second primary to win in 2020 and Mark Meadows had to go to a second primary to win in 2012. So we’ve been down this road before,” Cooper said. “It’s going to be chaos.”