As the second half of 2021 comes into full view, the field of candidates running to unseat freshman Republican Congressman Madison Cawthorn continues to grow in Western North Carolina's 11th Congressional District. The list of incidents involving the youngest member of Congress is also growing halfway through his first year in office.
Smoky Mountain News politics editor and BPR news contributor Cory Vaillancourt has been following the Congressman's moves this summer, including the revelations that came to light last week that Cawthorn attempted to take a loaded firearm through security at Asheville Regional Airport earlier this year. That news came as a fourth Republican challenger announced their candidacy to unseat Cawthorn in next year's GOP primary. Vaillancourt sat down with BPR's Matt Bush to discuss all that, plus his interview last month with former presidential adviser Karl Rove and the advice he'd offer to Cawthorn.
EXCERPTS OF INTERVIEW -
Matt Bush: (The incident with the gun) didn't really come to light until the end of last month. So first please tell us what happened.
Cory Vaillancourt: Just a couple of days ago, American Muckrakers PAC, a super PAC dedicated to ousting Cawthorn, sent out a press release and they had discovered an incident that occurred at the Asheville Regional Airport back in February. Apparently Congressman Cawthorn was rushing to catch a flight. TSA agents discovered a firearm in his carry on, and from there they began enforcement.
MB: The firearm was loaded, which is not permissible under TSA laws. So tell us a bit more about that.
CV: Well, the magazine was loaded, but there was no round chambered. So I'm not sure what the exact definition of loaded is, but that's correct. There was ammunition. So the procedure is that TSA will call local law enforcement. Now that's different at every airport, but at the Asheville airport, it happens to be their own department of public safety. This is a 24-7 police and fire service on the premises they responded. And in accordance with TSA policy, they gave Congressman Cawthorn the option to take the gun outside and stow it in a car or give it to a friend due to the fact that his flight was supposed to depart in about seven minutes. It was deemed at that wasn't going to be practical. And so again, in accordance with TSA policy, the firearm was stored at the Asheville airport until he came to pick it up nine days later.
MB: What's the disposition of this case? It still isn't fully completed through the various legal avenues, so what's the disposition of this case?
CV: I talked to a TSA regional spokesman by the name of Mark Howell. He oversees about six or seven states. He told me that the matter is still pending. And if you look at the TSA website, it says you can see fines in some cases up to almost $14,000. However, more realistically for a first-time offender with a clean record...if the firearm is deemed unloaded, that could be about a $2,000 fine. If it's loaded, maybe $4,000, but in both of those circumstances, travelers would likely lose their pre-check status either temporarily or permanently. So we'll just have to monitor this and see what ends up here.
MB: Now this past weekend, Congressman Cawthorn was at a fundraiser outside of the district. In fact, it was at one of the facilities owned by someone whom he very much looks up to, former President Trump. So where was he?
CV: Cawthorn held this fundraiser in Bedminster, New Jersey. It was at the Trump National Golf Club. It was rumored to be $50,000 a plate. I thought it was very funny, Jasmine Beach-Ferrara (a Democratic Buncombe County commissioner running for Congress in NC 11 next year) posted on Twitter that on that same day, she would be having a fundraiser at the Tropical Gardens mini-golf (in Asheville). And it was far less than $50,000 a person. It was actually $5 a person.
MB: Those out-of-district fundraisers were something that was a topic of a conversation you had last month with pretty prominent Republican – Karl Rove, the advisor to former President George W. Bush known as 'Bush's Brain.' You had a long conversation with him because Rove spoke at an NC-11 Republican event. So what sorts of things was he talking about in regards of with Congressman Cawthorn?
CV: I think the biggest takeaway was that the district, the 11th Congressional District is so Republican that it produces a surplus of votes that helps Republicans outweigh some of the more Democratic areas of the state like Charlotte. So he stressed the importance of NC-11 Republicans continuing to act as a grassroots army and getting that vote out both in 2022 and in 2024. I think the most interesting thing that he did say about Representative Cawthorn – and I think we have a clip here – he needs to focus on remaining in the district or campaigning in the district and not worry so much about his national profile, which of course has been part and parcel to Cawthorn's identity since he spoke at the Republican National Convention last year.
Karl Rove: That's why my advice to (Congressman Cawthorn) is don't get too far into campaigning nationwide. Don't neglect the people back home. Sophomore victories are really important in cementing a district. And he can play a huge role. The bigger he runs up his numbers in the 11th, the better the chances are Republicans win the U.S. Senate race (next year) and keep the state legislature.
MB: Congressman Cawthorn has drawn yet another Republican challenger. These aren't pretty big names that are coming up, but there are four of them now. So who's the latest one to enter the race?
CV: So this latest gentleman, I just spoke with him this morning. His name is Rod Honeycutt. He's a retired Army Colonel, he's got a website up and everything like that. So he rolled out, I believe August 1st. Now he becomes the fourth Republican. We have an Asheville Navy veteran Wendy Navarez. We have Haywood County Sheriff's deputy Eric Batchelor. And we also have the owner of the Pisgah Inn, Bruce O'Connell. So you're right. These aren't huge names, they're all political novices, but you have to kind of evaluate why so many people are running.
This story has been updated to correct typos in the original version