ASHEVILLE, N.C. — On Tuesday, Republicans could add to their ranks a 25-year-old congressman bent on being as disruptive to the right as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is to the left — or suffer an embarrassing defeat in a district they have no business losing.
Either way, the election here in North Carolina’s 11th District is poised to rattle the Grand Old Party.
Madison Cawthorn, the paraplegic survivor of a near-fatal car crash, achieved instant star power after a June primary in which he toppled the candidate endorsed by both President Donald Trump and former GOP Rep. Mark Meadows, who resigned the seat to become the president’s chief of staff. Armed with his newfound fame, Cawthorn has centered his campaign on a scathing critique of his own party, calling it xenophobic, feckless and devoid of empathy — all while aligning himself closely with a president accused of embodying those very traits.
“I definitely am running against the Republican Party,” he said in an interview this week, calling the GOP “timid” on everything from race to immigration to health care. “They’re a party that doesn’t try to tackle real issues. They are a party that always says no to things.”
Yet Cawthorn himself has become a vilified figure on the left, especially after his campaign unveiled a website last month with racist language. His opponent has taken to comparing him to the late senator from South Carolina who ran for president on a segregationist platform.
“He is a fresh new package, but the things that come out of his mouth sound like Strom Thurmond from the 1960s,” said Democratic nominee Moe Davis, a retired Air Force colonel. “There’s nothing original about his sexist, racist views.”
The race for the deep-red seat has gotten surprisingly close, with polls from both parties showing a single-digit race. And national Republicans have invested over $700,000 in TV ads to boost Cawthorn. Worried about an upset and that the first-time candidate needs advice, the National Republican Congressional Committee has held frequent strategy calls with the campaign, according to sources familiar with the sessions.
Cawthorn said he’s also spoken regularly with Trump since his primary, and the candidate made a special televised appearance during the Republican convention this summer. He has, in part, embraced the comparison to Ocasio-Cortez, who was elected to the House two years ago at the age of 29.
Yet some Republicans fear voters are wary enough of Cawthorn’s age and inexperience to give Democrats a path to victory, particularly because his open disdain for the party may have complicated his ability to consolidate the GOP base after a divisive primary.
Some of the competitiveness can be attributed to an unexpected court-mandated redistricting. Last year’s redraw of the district united the city of Asheville, a liberal enclave in the conservative-leaning mountainous region of the state. But even under the new lines, Trump would have carried this district by 17 points in 2016.
Cawthorn’s grassroots support was apparent at an early-voting rally that drew a crowd of nearly three dozen here Tuesday outside the Buncombe County GOP’s strip-mall headquarters. Some people arrived in a black truck plastered with QAnon conspiracy theory stickers. The candidate was greeted enthusiastically and posed for pictures. He had attendees cheering in agreement when he lambasted “the cowardice” of the GOP and laughing when he asked a couple of older women in Trump visors if they were college freshmen.
During an interview later that evening in a makeshift Zoom studio at his campaign office, Cawthorn detailed his gripes with the Republican Party, which he said is mostly right on policy but struggles to sell its vision.
On immigration, “we come across extremely xenophobic,” he said. “When we say we want a secure border — it sounds like, ‘Oh, well. It’s because you don’t like people that are brown.’” On health care, the GOP has offered nothing: “I’m a pretty astute person. When they say repeal and replace, I have absolutely zero idea what they plan to replace Obamacare with.”
“We should be thought leaders in America,” he said. “And, you know, we shouldn’t even be in these large social-issue debates with the Democratic Party.”
Most of all, he’s positioned himself as the answer to Republicans’ ticking “generational time bomb” caused by their inability to draw significant support from young voters.
His opponent, however, has made Cawthorn’s youth the crux of his case against him.
A 62-year-old former chief military prosecutor at Guantanamo Bay, Davis has also taught law, served as a judge and worked as a congressional aide on national-security issues. On the trail, he repeatedly cast Cawthorn as a clueless 20-something “with no education, no training, no experience that qualifies him for the job.”
He seems shocked that anyone could see Cawthorn as qualified to serve in Congress. In an interview, Davis rattled off a list of times he said his opponent seemed to be unaware of basic facts, including when he suggested he would be sworn in this month instead of in January; and an interview in which he suggested Congress could have over 500 members after the next census.
“He wants to write the tax code, but he can’t manage his own taxes. He wants to regulate insurance, but he’s still on his daddy’s policy,” Davis said. “He’s never had a mortgage. He’s never had a student loan, never had a full-time job.”
Both men have used inflammatory language. Davis has a litany of provocative tweets from his time as a commentator on cable news, including one that speculated Trump’s 2019 visit to the Bethesda Naval Hospital was because “he’s got a chapped ass from Mark Meadows kissing it all the time.” Cawthorn released a nearly three-minute Twitter video calling Davis a “simp” because he praised House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
The race has been dramatic from the start. Meadows angered local Republicans by announcing a surprise retirement, just hours before the filing deadline in December 2019. Cawthorn came from behind to beat Lynda Bennett — a friend of the Meadows family whom both Trump and Meadows endorsed — in a primary runoff.
But he has since become close with Trump, telling POLITICO the president has twice asked him for advice. “I’m just sitting there, you know, phone in my hand. I’m like, ‘That’s the president of the United States, asking me for advice.’ I’m 25 years old. That’s crazy.”
And some in the GOP have questioned how much Cawthorn can tout an inclusive message while firmly backing Trump.
“It makes nice rhetoric,” said Bob Orr, a former Republican state Supreme Court justice who opposes Trump and voted for Davis. Orr said he understands some of Cawthorn’s critiques of the party but is unclear on how he would reform it.
“I’ve seen nothing in his very brief tenure on the political stage to show that he’s willing to back anything or advocate for anything that would reverse that perception,” he said.
The race was thrust onto the national stage again in late October when Cawthorn unveiled a website that described a local journalist, Tom Fiedler, as a Democratic operative who works for “non-white males, like Cory Booker, who aims to ruin white males.” Fiedler briefly volunteered for Booker’s 2020 presidential campaign after saying in an interview that he wanted to work for a candidate who was not a white male.
Cawthorn said he does not know who wrote the text on his website — “We’re still looking into it, just to figure out exactly,” he said — and it was later removed. Interviewed last week by HuffPost, Booker called Cawthorn “clearly racist.”
Cawthorn said he only meant for the site to directly quote Fiedler. He forcefully denounced racism and white supremacy, calling it a “dumb” and “pathetic ideology” — and gesturing to his fiancée, who is a woman of color, he noted that he will have biracial children. “Are you telling me I am going to hate my children?”
The website, Cawthorn said, was meant to suggest that Fiedler is racist.
“We were trying to show this person who is going to work for Moe Davis is inherently racist on his own,” he said. “He’s saying: ‘Oh it’s you’re either white, or you’re nonwhite.’”
Fiedler — who is best known for helping to expose former Sen. Gary Hart’s sex scandal during the 1988 presidential race as a Miami Herald reporter — writes for an Asheville-based outlet called AVL Watchdog. He does not work for Davis.
In an interview, Fiedler said he was baffled by Cawthorn’s suggestion that his support for Booker “somehow made me anti-white” and that “somehow he is a victim of my anti-white bias, so this requires a great deal of mental gymnastics.” Fiedler and Davis are both white.
Davis said the incident was indicative of a larger pattern. He noted Cawthorn named his business with an ancient Latin term that has since been repurposed by white supremacists and posted an Instagram from Adolf Hitler’s vacation bunker, referring to it as a “bucket list” trip for him and Hitler as “the fuhrer.”
“Strom Thurmond had a biracial daughter. That didn’t make him not racist,” Davis said.
To beat Cawthorn, Davis will have to run up the margins in Asheville and hold his own in the rural counties.
He’s tried to tack to the middle, opposing an assault weapons ban and remaining noncommittal on the Green New Deal. He said he personally supports a single-payer health plan but would not back it in Congress because the district isn’t sold on it.
But he’s as much of a Baby Boomer as Cawthorn is a millennial. Mingling with students at an outdoor event this week at Western Carolina University, a few seemed to recognize him. One student urged him to go on the Snapchat show hosted by Vanity Fair’s Peter Hamby because Cawthorn had been on it.
“They had me do the TikTok thing,” Davis said in reply.
“No, this is Snapchat,” the student said, before turning to give Davis’ campaign manager the details.
Cawthorn has outraised Davis, pulling in over $2.3 million last quarter. But he is spending about $400,000 less than the Democrat on TV. Some operatives have complained Cawthorn’s ads have poor production quality, and the side-by-side comparison of him and Davis only reinforces his inexperience.
Much of Cawthorn’s team is young. A couple of his top staffers are friends whom he met when he briefly attended Patrick Henry College in Northern Virginia. (They arrived at the event last week in matching sweatshirts with Cawthorn’s logo and their last names embroidered on them.) His campaign office has a youthful vibe, with colorful Cawthorn campaign T-shirts hung on a rack. Pictures of Cawthorn on the trail adorn the walls.
Privately, some party strategists complain that the lack of seasoned operatives on the campaign has made the race closer than it should be, though both parties still consider Cawthorn the favorite to win.
Cawthorn attributes the tight race to the liberal pocket of Asheville and, in part, to Trump’s unpopularity with suburban women. Trump is too bombastic on stage, he said, but he doesn’t see his view of the GOP as clashing with or being impeded by the president.
“He has a vision for the Republican Party that is not being fulfilled right now,” Cawthorn said. “His vision for the Republican Party is very similar to mine, and he’s doing an incredible job.”