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Cawthorn's Uncivil War

Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson, U.S. Rep. Madison Cawthorn, and Rep. Mark Walker at an American Renewal Project event in October. In return for Trump's blessing, and at Cawthorn’s behest, Walker will not oppose Cawthorn ally Ted Budd for U.S. Senate.";

When Madison Cawthorn revealed his plan to abandon western North Carolina’s 11th Congressional District to seek reelection in a neighboring — and seemingly friendlier — district, he exuded confidence, even cockiness, about the outcome.

“We are taking ground for constitutional conservatism,” he wrote on Twitter, describing his move into the adjacent 13th District as if leading a righteous crusade into infidel territory. Otherwise, the 26-year-old Republican added, “I’m afraid that another establishment, go-along-to-get-along Republican would prevail there. I will not let that happen.” 

Initially his bravado in jumping the district line — a legal, though rare move — seemed politically sound and his victory assured. As a rising media star on the GOP’s far-right fringe and armed with the endorsement of ex-President Trump, Cawthorn had raised $2.3 million toward reelection by the end of September, with more pouring in. 

The mere threat of facing him apparently was too much for his expected opponent, Tim Moore of Cleveland County — the “go-along-to get-along” establishment Republican that Cawthorn swore to defeat. Never mind that Moore was the longest-serving speaker in the history of the North Carolina House. And never mind that, thanks to Moore’s legislative allies, the new 13th Congressional District had been tailor-made for him so he could fulfill a dream to serve in Washington.

Yet, just hours after Cawthorn declared his invasion plan, Moore surrendered. He told baffled supporters that he’d just as soon stay in the state General Assembly.

Victory was coming to Cawthorn so easily. A party nomination at the age of 24. A congressional seat at 25. A place among the party’s pantheon of far-right stink bombers. Bagging an establishment Republican who turned tail without the semblance of a stand. 

Tim Moore, speaker of the North Carolina House of Representatives

But that was then. Before the anti-Cawthorn fire and fury. Before this uncivil war.

“Ambitious Cowardice at Its Worst”

“This isn’t a noble effort. This is ambitious cowardice at its worst,” wrote Charles Jeter Jr., an influential former Republican state representative and among the first to sound the anti-Cawthorn alarm. “He’s an embarrassment that we need to defeat.”

How could it be, added Republican political strategist Jim Blaine on Twitter, that this one-term congressman with no discernible record could cow a veteran state lawmaker with encyclopedic achievements? “In what universe does this make sense?” he wrote.

In Cawthorn’s universe, where media attention weighs more than legislative productivity, it made perfect sense. 

“We have a unique opportunity to increase conservative leadership in North Carolina,” he declared in a video defending his strategy. This is how he could extend his pro-Trump brand of Republicanism from the western Carolina mountains to the suburbs of Charlotte and perhaps beyond. 

“In my heart I represent North Carolina as a whole, not some arbitrary lines that some politician drew this cycle,” he said in a self-produced video. It fit neatly into a grandiose vision he’d outlined in a talk to students at Western Carolina University in October: “I would love to be governor at some point because I think our state would be one of the greatest states in the nation if we had good leadership.”

But Cawthorn’s me-centered vision isn’t widely shared within his own party. His ambition to extend his “impact on the affairs of our state and our nation,” as he said in that video, is colliding violently against North Carolina’s Republican establishment, which itself is a bastion of conservatism. His move eastward has ignited a power struggle within the GOP between Cawthorn’s insurgents demanding the party remake itself in the image of Trump, and the establishment wing determined to retain its domination over the machinery of government.

Cawthorn’s Twitter feed is nearly nonstop Trump adulation.

No middle ground

“We are in this divide of us-versus-them in the party,” Catawba College professor Michael Bitzer, who writes frequently about North Carolina politics, said in an interview. “And you cannot pursue the middle ground because there is no middle ground in the Republican Party.”

Reflecting the existential stakes, the fire and fury triggered by Cawthorn’s move toward the Charlotte metroplex may have no precedent within the modern Republican Party. Bitzer sees this as a major battle within a national war by Trump loyalists to seize all the levers that control the GOP’s power, including party voters, party functionaries and, in their sights, the party’s elected office holders.

“What Cawthorn and others are attempting to do is to put a target on the back of anyone who isn’t a follower of Trumpism,” continued Bitzer. “And not only on your back; you’ve got a target on your front side.”

The conservative Club for Growth distributed an attack on former Gov. Pat McCrory this week. The Raleigh News & Observer called it “a signal to Republicans that if you run against Trump-backed candidates like Cawthorn and McCrory opponent Ted Budd, the worst attacks against you might come from inside the house.”

Already targeted, along with the retreating Moore, are U.S. Senator Thom Tillis and former Republican Governor Pat McCrory, who is seeking the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by the retiring Richard Burr.

McCrory’s leading opponent, Congressman Ted Budd, an ordained evangelical minister, collected the endorsement of Cawthorn and Trump after a recent pilgrimage to Mar-a-Lago. McCrory is also the target of a brutal political attack in mailings to voters from another Cawthorn and Trump aligned national organization, the Club for Growth.

Cawthorn this week poured additional fuel on the fire by circulating a flyer with the names of candidates he prefers in 10 of the state’s 14 districts.  It was headlined: “Congressman Cawthorn’s plan for North Carolina.”

“Callow and Appallingly Ignorant”

A measure of the establishment’s anger about what it sees as Cawthorn’s raw audaciousness surfaced quickly on social media and in the formal communication of party influencers. 

None spoke so directly as did John Hood, CEO and president of the John Locke Foundation, the secular church of the North Carolina Republican establishment: “Madison Cawthorn is a callow and appallingly ignorant young man who regularly embarrasses conservatives and Republicans, whether they admit it or not.”

“What conservative policy has Cawthorn ever delivered for his district? He’s barely even a lawmaker,” wrote GOP legislative attorney Brent Woodcox. “He just plays one on TV.”

And this in a tweet from Susan M. Tillis: “I can assure you that those of us in the new 13 [Congressional District] don’t need any intervention and we are capable of making our own decisions.”  Tillis leads a foundation with strong military links and is the wife of Thom Tillis, himself a veteran of the GOP establishment whom Cawthorn has dismissed as a RINO, the acronym for Republican in Name Only, among Trump’s favorite insults. The Tillises have a stake in this congressional race as they live in a Charlotte suburb inside the newly created 13th District.

These are among the nobles of the North Carolina Republican Party, people with demonstrated influence. Hood’s blistering assessments of Cawthorn were published in the Carolina Journal, the establishment’s holy writ.  Notably, he is regarded as the voice of political kingmaker Art Pope, the multi-millionaire backer of numerous pro-business, conservative causes who is credited almost singly with shaping the state party into its present form. 

In a political version of a cage match where only one fighter walks out, Cawthorn and the pro-Trump insurgency are taking on Art Pope’s establishment, says Bitzer.

Blowback From the Home Front

This blowback isn’t limited to the territory Cawthorn covets. It is being matched with equal ferocity in the district he’s leaving behind, the soon to be renamed 14th, a slightly reshaped version of the current 11th Congressional District centered on Buncombe and Henderson counties and stretching from Cherokee to Watauga. 

The anti-Cawthorn counterattack in his home district is aimed mostly, though not exclusively, against Cawthorn ally and heir-apparent Michele Woodhouse, a GOP party functionary from Hendersonville. Her husband is a cousin to Dallas Woodhouse, another anti-Cawthorn Carolina Journal columnist and former executive director of the state Republican Party. 

Michele Woodhouse

In his “plan for North Carolina,” Cawthorn included Woodhouse as his pick to succeed him.  Speculation that he would do so has been widespread for weeks. Cawthorn made a $1,000 contribution to a political action committee Woodhouse set up in August, enabling her to travel widely in the new district’s 15 counties. At the time Woodhouse was serving as the district’s party chairwoman, a position that traditionally requires the incumbent to remain neutral in party-primary elections. 

Yet, according to candidates who had announced plans to challenge Cawthorn’s renomination prior to his departure from the district, Woodhouse ignored that tradition and ceaselessly tried to stymie their campaign efforts. A native of Detroit who claims ancestral ties to the North Carolina mountains, Woodhouse announced her candidacy to carry forward the Cawthorn agenda on Nov. 18, just a week after he said he would move eastward toward Charlotte. 

She immediately drew bitter criticism from several directions, all of it within the GOP. Rival candidate Wendy Nevarez, a Navy veteran and among the first to have challenged Cawthorn before his planned move, blasted Woodhouse as an opportunist seeking to ride into office on Cawthorn’s coattails.

“She is an outsider,” Nevarez told Asheville Watchdog. “She didn’t grow up here, didn’t go to school here, didn’t raise kids here.” When Nevarez entered the campaign against Cawthorn last spring, she said Woodhouse was furious and threatened to block her from speaking to any local Republican groups or at any party functions.

Hotel owner Bruce O’Connell, also an early challenger to Cawthorn, said he, too, was threatened by Woodhouse. But he was livid upon learning that she had taken the $1,000 payment from Cawthorn in August, which he said suggested it was then that the plan was hatched for the congressman to change districts and anoint Woodhouse as his heir. 

“My fellow candidates and I have been strong-armed by Michele over these last few months to get out of the race, and we have been denied speaking slots at GOP events by her, and now we learn this,” wrote O’Connell, owner of the storied Pisgah Inn on the Blue Ridge Parkway, in a published statement. “Enough is enough … She needs to resign today.”

Woodhouse didn’t respond to The Watchdog’s requests for comment on either the payment or whether she had been promised Cawthorn’s support.

“Con Artists, Not Patriots”

The congressman also has come in for criticism within the conservative ranks. Party activist Cynthia Harman, a longtime Trump loyalist, wrote in the blog, SaveMadisonCounty.org, that “Woodhouse and Cawthorn are con artists, not Patriots. … The money drives their disease of lies and deception. They use the churches to propagate it.”

Even before Cawthorn’s announcement that he was shifting districts, opposition to his renomination was emerging as a serious threat. In addition to Nevarez and O’Connell, recently retired Army Colonel Rod Honeycutt found strong support among the district’s incumbent and former sheriffs, law enforcement officers, other military veterans and backers in Woodfin, where his family has ancestral roots. 

Rod Honeycutt

Honeycutt, who joined the Army days after his high school graduation and retired 37 years later as a high-ranking officer with two master’s degrees, has avoided criticizing either Cawthorn or Woodhouse. But some of Honeycutt’s supporters — among them many who had backed Cawthorn in 2020 — are unrestrained.

Former Henderson County Sheriff George Erwin, who was instrumental in getting a majority of western North Carolina’s Republican sheriffs to endorse Cawthorn in that election, has publicly apologized for doing so. In an interview for this article, Erwin said that to his knowledge few of those sheriffs will now back Cawthorn because of his actions in cheerleading protesters prior to the January 6 attack on the Capitol to disrupt the presidential-election certification, as well as his blatant refusal to follow the law prohibiting carrying weapons — in Cawthorn’s case a switchblade “combat knife” — on school grounds.

“I am very adamantly opposed to him, and I don’t see how anyone in law enforcement can support him now,” Erwin said. He’s endorsed Honeycutt for the GOP nomination in the primary, now scheduled for May 17. (The North Carolina Supreme Court on Wednesday ordered that the state’s March 2022 primary be delayed giving courts more time to settle two lawsuits challenging Republican-drawn maps for Congress and the state’s General Assembly.)

State Sen. Chuck Edwards (R-Hendersonville)

The most ironic threat to Cawthorn’s hopes to oversee a two-district domain came Nov. 30 when state Senator Chuck Edwards of Hendersonville declared his candidacy for Cawthorn’s western Carolina seat. Edwards embodies the very Republican establishment that Cawthorn boasted he “would not let happen.”

Edwards’ state senate district overlaps significantly with the redrawn 14th Congressional District, giving him a built-in network of GOP voters and positioning him as the pre-filing frontrunner for the nomination. The senator’s disgust with Cawthorn’s role in that January 6 “stop the steal” rally stems from Cawthorn’s exhortation to the crowd that they should “lightly threaten” any lawmaker who failed to support changes to election law.

“It exacerbates the divisions in our country and has the potential to needlessly place well-meaning citizens, law enforcement officers, and elected officials in harm’s way,” Edwards said in a statement posted to his website.

The Sole GOP Test: Trump or Not Trump

The emerging opposition to Cawthorn in his current district appears to provide a political rationale for skipping into the new 13th Congressional District, especially knowing he won’t face House Speaker Moore. Although additional candidates may emerge before the filing period for the GOP primary closes at noon Dec. 17, so far, the most experienced rival that Cawthorn may face is Karen Bentley, a former Mecklenburg County commissioner.

In an interview with the Watchdog, Bentley, who lives in a western Charlotte suburb, said that while she is realistic about her chances against a high-profile and well-funded candidate, she isn’t deterred. Bentley said she would highlight the “dichotomy between a politician grabbing headlines and one who has a record of governing” in North Carolina’s largest county. 

In her favor, nearly 60 percent of the new district’s Republican electorate live in the two counties closest to Charlotte and its media market, Mecklenburg and Gaston. These voters are apt to identify more with the politics of the Republican establishment than with those in the rural western counties where Cawthorn seeks to build his base.

Credit Cawthorn campaign
Rep. Madison Cawthorn has hitched his wagon to ex-President Trump

Cawthorn “may have a fight on his hands,” said Republican insider Wayne King, the regional director for then-Congressman Mark Meadows, who resigned to become Trump’s White House chief of staff. Adding to the voter-registration numbers could be still-raw emotions from some Moore supporters who resent the insults Cawthorn hurled at their hometown hero, driving him from the campaign. 

Still, as in most of the country, there is one thing that even the most anti-Cawthorn Republicans must not cross if they hope to survive in this uncivil war: to criticize ex-President Trump.

“At this point in time, unless shown a poll pointing otherwise, I don’t see how you can be successful unless you align yourself with Trumpism,” said Bitzer, the political scientist.

“This is very much a cult of personality. Are you for the former president or not? That’s the sole test.”

Asheville Watchdog is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and surrounding communities. Tom Fiedler is a Pulitzer Prize-winning political reporter and former executive editor of The Miami Herald, now living in Asheville. He can be reached at tfiedler@avlwatchdog.org.

AVL Watchdog publisher Bob Gremillion is a member of the search committee that will choose Blue Ridge Public Radio's next General Manager and CEO.

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