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Cawthorn faces former allies and stiff competition in NC-11 primary

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Cory Valliancourt
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Cawthorn speaks in Sylva as the Republican candidate in the Congressional race in 2020.

Western North Carolina’s 11th Congressional District has garnered national attention for electing one controversial Republican congressman followed by another who now finds himself in the fight of his political life.

Redistricting, Democrats – and other Republicans - are all factors in the race that might make Madison Cawthorn a one-term congressman.

In many ways, Madison Cawthorn owes his political existence to Mark Meadows, the influential former leader of the House Freedom Caucus . Meadows represented North Carolina’s 11th Congressional District beginning in 2013 until his last-minute 2019 announcement that he wouldn’t seek another term to become chief of staff to President Trump.

Meadows is currently under subpoena by the congressional committee investigating the events of Jan. 6. He’s also being investigated by state authorities for alleged voter fraud, after advancing debunked conspiracy theories that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump.

Meadows’ exit from the heavily Republican district produced a 10-candidate GOP Primary Election in 2020. Then-unknown, Cawthorn finished a surprising second to a Trump-backed candidate who he later trounced in the runoff. Once Cawthorn became the nominee, a pattern of troubling allegations emerged ranging from sexual harassment to lies and white supremacist sympathies.

First, it was alleged sexual harassment of a former classmate. Then it was claims of white supremacist sympathies. Then it was stolen valor, over his rejected application to the U.S. Naval Academy. Then it was his poor academic record and repudiation from former classmates at conservative Patrick Henry College. Most recently a former staffer has filed a lawsuit claiming labor violations.

Voters still handed Cawthorn a decisive victory over the Democratic nominee in November, 2020.

“The people of Western North Carolina said that we are sending a weapon to Washington, D.C. to end this divisiveness, to bring America back to what it once was,” Cawthorn said on election night.

Still relatively unknown outside his district, Cawthorn gained national notoriety for his speech at Trump’s “Stop the Steal” rally on the morning of Jan. 6, just three days after Cawthorn took office.

“Wow this crowd has some fight in it. I am so thankful that each and every one of you have come,” he told the crowd.

Cawthorn spent the rest of his first term making headlines. He was stopped with a firearm by Asheville TSA agents. He brought weapons to appearances at local schools, more than once. And he told his supporters to be ready for bloodshed over false claims of election rigging.

He also began to lose support from influential backers like retired Henderson County Sheriff George Erwin, and weathered a lawsuit that sought to disqualify him from the ballot for allegedly engaging in a rebellion or insurrection. This lawsuit is still pending.

Recently it was revealed that Cawthorn had been charged with driving on a revoked license for the second time in three years and has a number of speeding tickets.

Last month, Cawthorn’s comments about purported sex orgies and cocaine use in Washington drew outrage, and earned him a meeting with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), who said after the meeting that Cawthorn’s comments weren’t true.

Perhaps the biggest surprise from Cawthorn came last November, when he announced he wouldn’t run in the district that had elected him.

“When Congressman Cawthorn decided in early November that he was going to run in the newly drawn 13th Congressional District, he reached out to me personally and asked me – I was serving as his district chair at the time – Michelle, I need you to step in and run. I'm going to run in the Charlotte market. I want you to step in and run over here, to fill my seat,” said Michele Woodhouse, former NC 11 GOP district chair.

Cawthorn’s announcement, however, was premature. Newly drawn congressional maps were struck down by courts, and Cawthorn’s best move was to return to his original district.

Several Republicans had already jumped into the race before Cawthorn’s departure, and several more, like Woodhouse, joined after. Now that Cawthorn’s back in the 11th District, they’re all out to beat him.

“He has just proven that he does not have the maturity or discernment to serve the people in Western North Carolina,” Woodhouse explained. “And I think what I hear across all these counties is people are just so disappointed with his decisions and his antics and the things that he's done. They gave him a chance, and now the reality is we've got another America First candidate who can run, in me, that can take the maturity that we need to Washington D.C.”

Three-term Republican state Sen. Chuck Edwards had been critical of Cawthorn in the aftermath of Jan. 6, and jumped into the race upon Cawthorn’s departure.

“I believe that the folks in North Carolina's 11th District are tired of people turning their back on them,” Edwards said.

His message sounds a lot like that of Woodhouse.

“They feel abandoned because Congressman Cawthorn announced to move down to another district, filed to run in that district and then decided to come back and show the people of these mountains that they are his second choice,” Edwards said.

But there is one big difference – at a forum in Canton in March, Edwards pointed out that he’s the only Republican candidate with prior legislative experience.

“I know that people in this district are eager to see somebody go to Washington, D.C. that has actually done the things that everybody else says that they would like to do,” Edwards said. “I've cut taxes, outlawed sanctuary cities, balanced budgets, voted to protect the Second Amendment. No one else on that stage can say that. And I believe the voters in NC-11 recognize the difference.”

Cawthorn, who declined to comment for this story, has traveled the country raising money and meeting with Trump, who he now considers a mentor. All seven Republicans now running against Cawthorn – including Woodhouse and Edwards – have criticized his poor attendance on Capitol Hill.

“They feel abandoned every single time he misses a vote. Our voice is not heard, and he's got one of the worst participation records for voting in the entire U.S. House,” said Edwards.

Wendy Nevarez was the first Republican to announce a challenge to Cawthorn, just three months after the Inauguration. A Navy veteran, Nevarez has positioned herself to the left of the field and will serve as an important test of the sway Cawthorn – and Trump – still hold over the Republican party.

On March 23, Nevarez was endorsed by a nonpartisan PAC with one mission – to unseat Madison Cawthorn. It’s called Fire Madison Cawthorn, and it also caused a stir by asking Democrats to re-register as unaffiliated so they could vote against Cawthorn on the Republican Primary ballot.

During a March 26 forum in Flat Rock, Nevarez was the only Republican to call Jan. 6 an insurrection. The audience, and other candidates heard here on radio station WTQZ, booed her.

“I was raised to be you know, opinionated and stand by my principles and conviction of truth and honor,” Nevarez said. “And so at the end of the day, I can sleep at night. I don't believe that a few hundred people in that room represent everybody in the nation or everybody in my party.”

In addition to Nevarez, Woodhouse, and Edwards, other NC11 primary candidates challenging Cawthorn include Matthew Burril, Rod Honeycutt, Bruce O’Connell and Kristie Sluder. If the winning candidate doesn’t get 30% of the vote, the top two will enter a July runoff.

Tune in for part two tomorrow to learn about the Democratic candidates competing in the NC-11 primary.

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