The race to replace Western North Carolina Congressman Mark Meadows enters a new phase this month.
Early voting has begun for the June 23 Second Primary for the GOP nomination in North Carolina’s 11th Congressional district, as eligible Republicans and independents will decide whom faces Democrat Moe Davis in November.
The runoff election is just another chapter in a saga that even the most-seasoned political expert might have found implausible just months ago.
With Western North Carolina and the country still going through the combined effects of the Coronavirus Pandemic and demonstrations over racial injustice, a vital election will take place. Here’s Western Carolina University political science professor Dr. Chris Cooper.
“This is I think the most interesting election in the country,” said Cooper. “Nationally, it’s gotten a lot of attention, clearly because of Mark Meadows.”
The 11th is redrawn for this election after it was one of many districts a court ruled was illegally gerrymandered for racial reasons by state Republicans. Meadows, now President Donald Trump’s chief of staff, represented it four terms. The day before the filing period ended last December he made a surprise 4 a.m. announcement that he wouldn’t seek reelection.
Just two hours later, Maggie Valley real estate agent Lynda Bennett received an endorsement from the Asheville Tea PAC. She also had her campaign website up and ready to go, because it was registered back in October.
“The timing of Meadows’ departure locked some folks in the field, and locked some folks out of the field,” Cooper said.
Eleven other Republicans filed for the seat. Despite the backing of Meadows and fellow House Freedom Caucus member, Congressman Jim Jordan of Ohio, Bennett could not hit the 30% of the vote threshold needed in the March 3rd primary to avoid a runoff. Now she and the second place finisher in the primary – 24-year-old Henderson County real estate investor Madison Cawthorn – face each other in the runoff. Cawthorn finished just two-thousand votes behind Bennett.
“A lot of people in the Republican Party realize that there's a generational time bomb going off and that we need to do something to diffuse it now,” Cawthorn said. “The liberals have really cornered the market on young people with representatives like AOC and Ilhan Omar. Republicans really need to start reaching out to the younger generation or in a few years, a few short decades, we will have some very dark days in our republic.”
Cawthorn has drawn comparisons to liberal New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez – both are young, polished, and persuasive speakers despite their political differences.
Bennett has refused interviews with most media outlets since the publication of a story in February ahead of the first primary about an endorsement that really wasn’t. Early voters were shocked to see volunteers handing out flyers listing Bennett as the “official” conservative candidate. Those flyers were created by a two-day-old PAC with significant financial ties to Bennett’s campaign. The Macon County Republican Party denounced the endorsement as “sleazy shenanigans” from a “rookie campaign.” Even the NCGOP’s 11th District Chairman, Aubrey Woodard, called it a “transgression” that shouldn’t have happened. Bennett was not on stage with Cawthorn, at a recent forum hosted by the Waynesville Mountaineer, Sylva Herald and Cherokee One Feather newspapers.
“Really, the worst part about my opponent is that without a script, without cue cards, without having a prepared statement, my opponent is unable to defend the cause of conservatism,” said Cawthorn.
Cawthorn mobilizes using a wheelchair, the result of a car accident a few years ago.
“I've been burned alive and I've very nearly died. I've had to claw back from within an inch of death. I've looked into the abyss. I know what's going to look back at me and I know who I am,” he said. “You know, oftentimes many of my opponents have said that we need someone with a backbone of steel, but I can quite literally say that mine is reinforced with titanium.”
Cawthorn admits there’s not a lot of difference between him and Bennett ideologically. But he says he has a better chance of winning in November, against Democrat Moe Davis. Davis is a retired Air Force colonel who prosecuted terrorists at Guantanamo Bay, until he resigned in protest of evidence obtained by torture.
“She may think that she can run away from me in a debate and hide and duck and cover, but she will not be able to do that in a General Election,” said Cawthorn. “What's going to happen is, we're going to have this Democratic Guantanamo Bay prosecutor wipe the floor with her in a debate.”
That weighs heavy on the minds of some Republicans, like 29-year-old Haywood County voter Hailey Pressley.
“I don't like that she won't have like a formal debate with Madison,” Pressley said. “That kind of makes me a little nervous that she won't be able to hold her own in Washington if she can't do something as minor as that.”
But Cawthorn’s base isn’t simply voting against Bennett.
“I really like his message,” Pressley said. “I really like what he stands for. Conservative, Christian. I really love how enthusiastic he's been about his campaign. He really stands up for what he believes. He's overcome, you know, a lot in his life. He's he seems like a real go getter. He seems like he has a backbone.”
While Hailey Pressley was speaking with BPR, Bennett picked up her highest profile endorsement yet via Tweet – from President Donald Trump. When reached for comment later, Pressley said it wouldn’t change her opinion of Cawthorn, or her vote.