If the worst thing Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-NC) did this month was call Ukraine’s President “a thug,” or get caught speeding multiple times with a revoked license, or accuse Speaker Nancy Pelosi of being an alcoholic, the 26-year-old MAGA-influencer would probably be just fine in his re-election bid.
But Cawthorn did something far worse, at least for his own political prospects, and it may cost him his seat: He left his constituents—and then was forced to return to them, hat in hand, after the courts predictably struck down the state’s new map, and eliminated the district he left to run in, on Feb. 23.
The about-face opened up a more damaging line of attack than anything Cawthorn has said or done. It showed, at least briefly, that he was less interested in representing the voters who first elected him than he was in just being in Congress.
The numerous candidates challenging Cawthorn in the GOP primary, slated for May, do not intend to let voters in North Carolina’s 11th District forget it.
One of them is Michele Woodhouse.
When Cawthorn announced last November that he would run in a different district than the 11th, he called Woodhouse.
As the chair of the GOP in the district, she knew Cawthorn well. Now that he was leaving to run in a newly drawn, more conservative seat closer to Charlotte, the congressman urged Woodhouse to get in the race for his current job—which she did. As did Chuck Edwards, a respected state senator, bringing the total of viable Cawthorn challengers to nearly a half-dozen.
After spending months campaigning in another district—and supporting Woodhouse—a state court undid the lines that prompted Cawthorn to make his big play, and the district he had moved to vanished in an instant.
That forced Cawthorn to backtrack and run in his original district, in an attempt to reverse the game of political musical chairs he had kicked off.
This time, he made no call to Woodhouse. But plenty of others did. They urged her to continue her campaign—even if her primary opponent was now Cawthorn himself.
“When he decided to come back in, my phone blew up with calls—from within the district, across North Carolina, elected officials from D.C.—saying, ‘You have to stay in the race,’” Woodhouse said.
If it weren’t for forsaking his district, even with all of his controversies and embarrassments, Cawthorn could likely have coasted through election season just fine. But if the congressman’s opponents can effectively capitalize on his district-switching screw-up, it could provide the missing ingredient for defeating him in a GOP primary.
Chris Cooper, a professor of political science at Western North Carolina University, explained that Cawthorn “is at risk” because of the PR blowback and because of the months he spent running somewhere else.
“The feeling,” Cooper said, “is that this is going to be an interesting primary.”
If Cawthorn’s headlines in the two weeks following the district re-switch are any indication, it will be more than interesting. The ingredients are there for an upset—one that might explain why Republicans are eager for someone else to take Cawthorn’s place and not turn a safe district into one the GOP has to even think about.
Part of the problem for Cawthorn is that he just can’t stop producing cringey headlines.
On March 10, Cawthorn’s constituents heard him call Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky a “thug” and the Ukrainian government “incredibly evil,” as both earned the world’s support and sympathy for heroic resistance to Russia’s invasion.
For any other lawmaker, that’d be a bad week. For Cawthorn, it was just the beginning.
On March 14, video resurfaced of Cawthorn telling MAGA activist Charlie Kirk that he had brought “multiple weapons” with him to the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. (Last year, it was reported that Cawthorn tried to bring a loaded Glock onto a plane.)
Then, local reports came out detailing how Cawthorn had his driver’s license revoked, drove without it anyway, and racked up a string of hefty speeding tickets.
He then capped it all off by publicly suggesting that Pelosi—who famously doesn’t drink—is an alcoholic.
The telegenic Cawthorn may have a made-for-TV jawline, but what comes out of it is, largely, a stream of embarrassment. He traffics in stilted own-the-libs soundbites and aspirational MAGA mantras, both of which were in full force as he tried to fight off his torrid run of headlines.
In explaining his Ukraine comments, for instance, Cawthorn alleged that Russian President Vladimir Putin was “demonically possessed” but didn’t walk back his insults against Zelensky, instead saying war could have been prevented except for the “geriatric despot in the White House because of the stolen election.”
Cawthorn’s challengers clearly believe he is vulnerable to defeat. Woodhouse says she regularly hears from voters who say they will never support him again.
“The sparkle and buzz around him here—locally, that penny is no longer shiny,” she said. “It might shine for him in other places, it doesn’t shine for him here.”
No matter Cawthorn’s fate back home, for many Republicans, the last year has shown that the young man once viewed as a rising star is now little more than a growing headache for the GOP.
Among his colleagues in Congress, patience with the young congressman is running out, according to several House Republican sources.
When he first came to Washington, several more established Republicans privately tried to mentor Cawthorn and bring him along—a well-meaning effort that he largely resisted, a senior GOP aide told The Daily Beast.
The lawmaker’s campaign to win friends and influence people instead might be epitomized by an incident last July, when he got into a shouting match on the House floor with a respected senior member, Rep. David McKinley (R-WV), over a legislative misunderstanding. The brouhaha culminated in Cawthorn insulting McKinley and his staff, who then slapped Cawthorn with an ethics complaint.
At this point, multiple GOP sources said Cawthorn has few friends on the Hill and, more to the point, probably does not realize how many enemies he’s made. A senior GOP aide—granted anonymity to describe the mood of Republicans—said the consensus in the conference is that Cawthorn is more of a liability than anything else.
“Nobody wants his help,” the aide said. “Nobody wants to help him.”
In response to questions from The Daily Beast, Cawthorn spokesman Luke Ball said Cawthorn has “fantastic working and personal relationships with an overwhelming majority of his GOP colleagues.” He said any suggestion that Cawthorn rejected mentorship outreach was false, and argued that unnamed sources disparaging a “rising star” in the party should not be taken seriously.
The congressman’s “meteoric rise,” Ball said, “has angered some in the GOP’s old guard, and that’s ok.”
“The Congressman is accountable to the people, not the Washington elites,” he continued. “His goal is to mold the GOP, both in North Carolina and around the nation, into a party that puts America first.”
Cawthorn’s closest allies on Capitol Hill might be his fellow MAGA brigade freshmen, Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) and Lauren Boebert (R-CO). He is often lumped in with those two, at least. But a closer comparison between them isn’t especially flattering to Cawthorn.
Greene has excelled at the outside political game, raising millions of dollars and somehow becoming a GOP power player, while Boebert has impressed many Republicans on Capitol Hill with her efforts to build clout inside the halls of Congress.
But Cawthorn hasn’t really figured out how to play either game. It likely limits not only his star power in the GOP but also his staying power.
When it comes to his legislative record, none of his more than 30 sponsored bills have so much as gotten a hearing. Few Republicans seem to want to work with him. Nearly all of his authored bills only have a smattering of cosponsors. Generally, they are fellow far-right lawmakers like Rep. Paul Gosar (R-AZ).
That is not exactly surprising, given that Cawthorn told all of his colleagues that he built his staff around “comms,” not legislation. Predictably, he has been more successful at getting headlines than legislative results.
In February, Cawthorn made his biggest legislative splash yet, proposing an updated version of the “Contract With America”—the conservative set of principles that former Speaker Newt Gingrich famously championed when he took over the House in 1994.
Not a few eyes were rolled at the sight of a freshman lawmaker taking up the mantle of Gingrich and putting forth what he called a “definitive roadmap… for my generation to reclaim our country.”
Largely, the plan is a rehash of very old GOP ideas—cut spending, balance the budget—peppered with contemporary MAGA catnip, like requiring China to compensate the U.S. because of COVID-19 and banning critical race theory.
It’s unclear who, if anyone, has signed Cawthorn’s contract, which has not yet been filed as a resolution. Cawthorn told Fox News that he talked to Gingrich about the plan, and that he hoped to get his endorsement.
But when reached by The Daily Beast this week, Gingrich said he had “nothing to do” with Cawthorn’s plan; he couldn’t even recall ever having a “substantive” conversation with the young congressman.
Asked if he supported Cawthorn’s plan, Gingrich simply replied: “I’m for a lot of different guys having ideas.”
In the realm of electoral politics, where Cawthorn has really tried to flex his muscle, his recent track record has also been less than impressive.
Like his ally Greene, Cawthorn has sought to position himself as a kingmaker—a national leader of the MAGA movement and a sought-after commodity on the speaking and rally circuit for various candidates nationwide. Woodhouse, his primary opponent, recalled a recent meeting in which a Cawthorn aide bragged about how he gets stopped for pictures in every airport he travels through.
But Cawthorn’s endorsements have, so far, fallen flat. Last year, he quickly endorsed Rep. Mark Walker (R-NC) to run for the Senate seat being vacated by retiring Sen. Richard Burr. But Walker seems to have faded to a third-place spoiler role as the primary draws near.
In Texas’ Republican primaries earlier this month, two of Cawthorn’s chosen candidates failed to make runoff elections in their races, with one contest serving as a major proxy battle between him and GOP leadership.
Cawthorn’s own district-switching gambit, meanwhile, was baffling to GOP operatives, who could not understand why he decided to make such a splash when North Carolina’s maps were so likely to change again. And they really didn’t understand why Cawthorn—even more bafflingly—took it upon himself to decide where his GOP colleagues should run.
In December, Raleigh’s ABC affiliate reported that Cawthorn was circulating a proposal among state GOP politicos titled “Congressman Cawthorn’s Plan For North Carolina.” It helpfully informed his colleagues which districts they should run in under the new lines. (Notably, it named Woodhouse as the candidate for Cawthorn’s old seat. Ball denies that Cawthorn endorsed her, even though the congressman donated to her campaign.)
The move not only potentially violated House ethics rules, it had the effect of angering Cawthorn’s colleagues and Republicans from D.C. to North Carolina.
For MAGA-brand politicians like Cawthorn, antagonizing the establishment is a badge of honor. But his conduct has ensured that he will get limited help from Republicans—help that could be badly needed as he fights off a primary and, potentially, a well-funded Democratic challenger.
In 2021, Cawthorn raised over $2.8 million—an impressive sum, but far less than fellow firebrands like Greene, Boebert, and Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL). Unlike many lawmakers facing electoral competition, Cawthorn has gotten few checks from GOP allies.
And Cawthorn has blown through most of his $2.8 million warchest. In his year-end 2021 filing, he had one-tenth of what he raised—just $282,000 on hand, with $177,000 in outstanding debts. Over half of his expenditures went toward fundraising.
In 2020, Cawthorn snuck up on a GOP establishment candidate backed by the district’s former representative, the onetime Trump Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, and pulled off a major upset in the primary.
Some plugged-in GOP operatives believe that Cawthorn remains the odds-on favorite. If Cawthorn does not clear 31 percent of the vote in the May 17 primary, however, things get interesting. The top two candidates would proceed to a July runoff. Cawthorn is familiar with that game: He defeated Republican Lynda Bennett in a runoff in 2020, after he finished second in the first round of voting.
In addition to Woodhouse and Edwards—who jumped in the race after Cawthorn’s switch—he was already facing Navy vet Wendy Nevarez, who is in line with the Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-IL) wing of the party, as well as local sheriff Rod Honeycutt and businessman Bruce O’Connell.
Cooper, of Western North Carolina University, said voters in the district know Cawthorn largely for his string of controversies, but said many knew that’s what they were getting when they voted for him. The incumbent’s bigger problem, he said, is the months he spent running in a different district.
Edwards, a longtime state senator and well-known presence in the area, said in an interview that “the people of western North Carolina deserve a congressman who has their best interest in mind—not to build a political career.”
“I believe that there is a distinct difference between a fighter and a fighter that has proven that they are a winner,” Edwards said.
Meanwhile, Woodhouse said her campaign is working, ahead of the May primary, to communicate to voters that “you have a conservative in this race, who you can be proud of for their behavior… I won’t be on the front page of the Asheville Citizen-Times for a gun or knife.”
Woodhouse knows Cawthorn well. Asked what, exactly, is the deal with him—what explains all this inexplicable behavior—she turned to the Bible’s story of David and Goliath.
Cawthorn once fashioned himself as David. Power, said Woodhouse, has changed him.
“He wants to be able to have all the glory, without the work, without the sacrifice,” she said. “Some people will excuse it as youth, but at 26 years old… at a certain point, you’re not young anymore. It’s really about depth.”