Republican voters in Western North Carolina will head to the polls again in just two months to decide a runoff primary following Tuesday’s results in the 11th Congressional district. No candidate in the 11-person field for the GOP nomination hit the 30% threshold needed to avoid a runoff. That means the top two vote-getters – Lynda Bennett and Madison Cawthorn – will face each other in the May runoff.
Western Carolina University political scientist Dr. Chris Cooper says Bennett would normally benefit from the endorsement she received from outgoing Republican Congressman Mark Meadows. But in this election, little has been normal. Meadows announced his retirement on December 19th, the day before the candidate filing period for the March primary ended, giving precious little time for anyone to jump into the race. Bennett did just a few hours after Meadows' announcement, sparking claims she had a heads up on his decision which the Maggie Valley businesswoman has denied.
"Under different circumstances, it's possible that Bennett would be seen as the choice of all the establishment," Cooper says. "There's definitely some factions in the Republican party that are forming and really growing over the last few months because of Meadows' decision and the perception that Meadows wanted to get Bennett in office by timing his decision when he did."
Like Bennett, Madison Cawthorn has never held political office either. The youngest candidate in the field will be 25 when he would take office should he win, the minimum necessary age for a member of Congress. His surprise second place finish hinged on winning the GOP vote in Buncombe and Cawthorn's native Henderson Counties, which are the two most populous counties in the 11th district. "We tend to think of Buncombe of being this Democratic stronghold, but if a Republican candidate can pull the Republican voters from these populous counties, that could be a very good sign for him going forward," Cooper says.
Given that Bennett did well in her native Haywood County and its neighbors, Cooper feels the key to victory in the runoff will be whomever does best in the far western counties of the 11th like Macon and Cherokee. Longtime GOP state senator Jim Davis won both Tuesday, but as he finished in third behind Cawthorn, he won't be on the ballot come May.
The Republican nominee will face Democrat Moe Davis in the November general election.