Allies distance themselves from NC's Madison Cawthorn, ex-supporters seek to oust him

Cawthorn has upset GOP leaders in the state by changing districts and criticizing Ukraine's president. He is also facing primary challenges from past supporters of his.

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Bryan Anderson
, WRAL state government reporter

The hungry political newcomer entered 2020 eager to take on powerful Republicans who opposed his candidacy. After a surprise victory over a primary opponent then-President Donald Trump had supported, U.S. Rep. Madison Cawthorn saw a meteoric rise.

At 25, the Hendersonville real estate investor became the youngest member of Congress in more than half a century. He quickly bolstered his national profile by endearing himself to Trump.

But in recent months, a series of self-inflicted personal and political challenges—from international affairs to traffic stops—have caused some of his GOP allies to distance themselves from Cawthorn, now 26. The conflicts have also only further turned off longtime Republicans who had already disliked him. Some are now questioning whether he’ll win reelection.

“There’s a big fat question mark over this primary and it wouldn’t be under normal circumstances,” said Chris Cooper, a Western Carolina University political scientist. “We shouldn’t be having this conversation about a first-term incumbent member of Congress who can raise money with every tick of the clock.”

Luke Ball, a spokesman for Cawthorn, didn’t respond to requests for comment from the congressman, who received nearly $2.8 million in net contributions last year—almost 17 times more than the $168,000 his opponents collectively took in.

This month, Cawthorn called Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy a “thug,” prompting condemnation from some high-profile state Republicans and separation from others. News of the comments came days after Cawthorn had been charged with driving with a revoked license.
Meanwhile, voters have sought to keep Cawthorn off the ballot over a speech he made questioning the presidential election results at a Jan. 6, 2021, rally in Washington, D.C. The remarks came shortly before a violent mob of former President Donald Trump’s supporters broke into the U.S. Capitol. The voters’ challenge was blocked this month by a federal judge.
His reelection effort has also been rife with intraparty conflict. When Cawthorn decided in November to seek reelection in a more politically favorable district, he stifled an expected run from state House Speaker Tim Moore, saying he was doing so in part to prevent the election of “another establishment, go-along-to-get-along Republican.” GOP-led redistricting ultimately caused Cawthorn to run in his old district.

“If there is any one thing that he does that is the fatal blow, I think that's going to be the one,” Cooper said.

Accepting support, creating separation

The developments have caused some of his most ardent supporters to tiptoe around Cawthorn.

Former Greensboro-area U.S. Rep. Mark Walker, who is now running for U.S. Senate, has long touted his support for Cawthorn and been reluctant to criticize the rising GOP star. Walker played an active role in Cawthorn’s 2020 primary win over Trump-backed realtor Lynda Bennett.
But in a March 11 interview—the day after WRAL reported on Cawthorn’s remark about Zelesnkyy—he voiced his disagreement with Cawthorn’s position on Russia’s military invasion in Ukraine. Republicans across the country overwhelmingly hold a favorable opinion of Zelenskyy, polls show.

“There's no part of me that agrees with those comments,” Walker said. “I mean, I'm not saying that Zelenskyy is a Sunday school boy, but to try to equate what Putin is doing to people, the war crimes that he's committing, is atrocious.”

Cawthorn has since walked back his comment by equating the governments of both Russia and Ukraine as “incredibly corrupt and very vile."

Walker’s campaign website still lists Cawthorn on its endorsement section. The congressman declined to say whether he would reject Cawthorn’s support for his candidacy in light of his comments about the Russia-Ukraine conflict.

“For people that I have supported or endorsed in the past, it is important to me the positions they take, but any kind of conversations or encouragement or guidance that I would offer, I’ll probably leave that between he and I,” Walker said.

A panel of North Carolina judges enacted a new congressional map.

Meanwhile, political newcomer Bo Hines openly embraces Cawthorn’s support of his run in North Carolina’s 13th Congressional District, which includes the southern portion of Wake County, all of Johnston County and parts of Wayne and Harnett counties. Hines, however, made pains to distinguish himself from Cawthorn.

“We have different personalities,” Hines said. “I think that we might have some different aspirations. While I do fully respect him, what he's been able to do and I greatly appreciate his endorsement in this race, I think that people will start to get to know me better for who I am. We have separate visions of who we both are.”

Hines called Russian President Vladimir Putin a “terrorist” and said he disagrees with Cawthorn’s characterization of Ukraine’s president.

“I don't think Zelenskyy’s thug,” Hines said. “I think Vladimir Putin is a tyrant. I think Vladimir Putin is a terrorist and he should be treated as such in the international community.”

Club for Growth Action, a Washington political action committee that backed Cawthorn in 2020, said it still supports the congressman. But the group’s president, David McIntosh, said the organization isn’t planning to spend money in this year’s primary. He says Cawthorn already has enough financial resources at his disposal.

“I sort of look at us as air cover,” McIntosh said. “If one of our guys gets into trouble or needs help, we'll be ready for it. But when they're strong on their own, they take care of their own. He helps campaign for a lot of our other candidates.”

McIntosh said Cawthorn’s comments about Zelenskyy were “taken out of context” and that Cawthorn also strongly condemned the Russian government.

Former supporters running against Cawthorn

Cawthorn faces seven primary challengers in the May 17 election, including two who say they previously backed the congressman.

The district he sought last year would have extended into the Charlotte area, while the one he is now competing for stretches far west from McDowell to Cherokee counties.

During a December meeting at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida, Cawthorn handed the former president a piece of paper with a now-defunct congressional map of the state. In the document titled “Congressman Cawthorn’s plan for North Carolina,” he recommended Trump back local GOP official Michele Woodhouse for the state’s westernmost district.

When a new court-issued congressional voting map prompted Cawthorn to seek reelection in his district, Woodhouse had already begun campaigning. Despite her strong support of Cawthorn in the past, she declined to drop out and now portrays her former ally as a self-absorbed man unfit to represent voters in the area.

“Western North Carolinians deserve a member of Congress who is not on the front page of the paper for knives and guns and breaking the law,” Woodhouse said in an interview. “They deserve someone who's going to go there and serve them with honor and distinction.”

She cited Cawthorn’s driving record, his cleaning of a gun during a congressional committee hearing and accusation of bringing a knife onto school property as disqualifying factors.

A video of Cawthorn handing an enlarged $200,000 check addressed to the “Town of Sylva” has also gained attention from opponents on social media. In the video posted to Twitter on Thursday, Cawthorn said he supported the specific $200,000 appropriation for the town to make street repairs but voted against the final American Rescue Plan measure that made the money available.

Cooper, the Western Carolina University political scientist, said he views Woodhouse and state Sen. Chuck Edwards as Cawthorn’s top primary opponents, with Edwards occupying a more ideologically right-of-center lane and Woodhouse going after Cawthorn from the further right end of the political spectrum.

“I take these challengers seriously,” Cooper said. “It's a big field, it's a crowded field and regardless of what you think about any of them ideologically, there's multiple quality challengers in there.”

Cawthorn is also running against Bruce O’Connell, the owner and manager of the Pisgah Inn who has loaned his own campaign $1 million. O’Connell said he has previously donated $250 to Cawthorn but has since become disillusioned by the congressman he considers an “opportunist.”

Wendy Marie-Limbaugh Nevarez, a Navy veteran who identifies as a moderate Republican, said she voted for Democratic nominees Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden in the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections because she couldn’t come to support Trump. She also said she briefly changed her party affiliation from Republican to unaffiliated and said she didn’t back Cawthorn in 2020.

She is running with the backing of a political action committee that was launched by Moe Davis, Cawthorn’s Democratic opponent in 2020. The Fire Madison Cawthorn super PAC is urging Democrats to support Nevarez by switching their party affiliation to unaffiliated so they can be eligible to request a GOP ballot. Nevarez also is hoping to appeal to existing unaffiliated voters in the region.

“The wonderful thing about our country is we’re resilient and people with the loudest voice tend to lose their voice after a period of time,” Nevarez said.

Edwards did not respond to a request for comment. Republicans Matthew Burril, Rod Honeycutt and Kristie Sluder are also running.

If no candidate surpasses the 30% threshold needed to win the party’s nomination outright, the two highest vote-getters would compete in a July runoff.

“Is Madison Cawthorn the favorite? Yeah, probably,” Cooper said. “Is he going to be able to walk away with an easy victory? I would be very, very surprised.”