The field of challengers to Republican Congressman Madison Cawthorn’s renomination narrowed Sunday with the withdrawal of Army veteran and Haywood County deputy sheriff Eric Batchelor.
Batchelor sent an email to supporters early Sunday announcing the suspension of his intra-party challenge to the first-term incumbent. But he added that his decision was intended to improve the chances of the remaining three announced challengers to stop Cawthorn from winning renomination as the Western North Carolina representative.
“With myself and three others challenging Cawthorn in the primary, the vote is split so that he will probably still emerge as the victor,” Batchelor wrote in an early-morning email. “I have met with two of the three remaining candidates and they understand the consequences of our high numbers as well.”
Under North Carolina election law, a candidate needs only 30 percent of the vote in a primary election to secure a party nomination. In a multi-candidate field, the possibility of Cawthorn emerging victorious with only a fraction of party support would be increased. Batchelor suggested in his email that the field may narrow still more.
“I believe one or more of them will do the right thing and suspend their run as well, creating much more favorable odds to beat Cawthorn in a primary,” he wrote.
Remaining among the challengers are retired Army Col. Rod Honeycutt, Pisgah Inn owner Bruce O’Connell, and Navy veteran Wendy Nevarez. Batchelor said he believed these three were further along in their campaigns than he was, which he attributed to his full-time work as Haywood deputy sheriff and emergency medical technician (EMT).
“I feel it’s the right thing to make room for one or two strong candidates and support them as they move forward,” he wrote. “There is too much at stake to stay in the race purely to satisfy my ego.”
In an interview with Asheville Watchdog, Batchelor was asked whether there was a single, overriding reason that motivated his decision to challenge the controversial incumbent.
He replied: “January 6.”
That was a reference to Cawthorn’s role in encouraging the protesters who gathered in Washington, DC, on that day to protest the impending vote to certify the presidential election of Joe Biden. “Wow, this crowd has some fight in it!” he shouted to supporters of then-President Trump. He called the protesters “lions,” and repeatedly called his Congressional colleagues “cowards” who were hiding in their offices. Minutes later, many in the crowd marched to the Capitol and participated in the rioting that left several dead. During the riot Cawthorn called a conservative radio program from inside the Capitol building and said he was carrying loaded weapons.
All three of the remaining candidates have cited Cawthorn’s highly publicized, far-right stances as being among their reasons for challenging him.
The GOP primary is scheduled for March 8, nearly seven months ahead of the 2022 general election. Cawthorn’s defeat for renomination could leave him as a lame duck for a large portion of his term, which earned him national notice as the youngest elected member of Congress in history. But he immediately aligned himself with the most radically conservative wing of his party, befriending such colleagues as Marjorie Taylor Greene and hurling regular insults at House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and even his North Carolina GOP colleague, Senator Thom Tillis. Cawthorn made it known that he believed generating publicity for his extreme positions was a higher priority than working on legislation.
In interviews with The Watchdog, Honeycutt, the former high-ranking Army officer, and O’Connell, the hotel owner, claimed strong financial and other support sufficient to carry them through to the primary. Nevarez, while insisting that her support has also grown with continued exposure to moderate GOP voters, conceded that she is having difficulty raising money for her effort.
Meanwhile Cawthorn’s high-profile campaigning outside of western North Carolina has enabled him to easily out-raise all challengers, bringing in $1.7 million, according to the candidate’s latest campaign finance report. But he also spent $1.5 million for expenses including travel and paid advisers, leaving him with limited cash on hand to fend off a solid challenge in the closing months.
Cawthorn also faces questions about health issues that still impact him as the result of an auto accident six years ago that left him partially paralyzed and reliant on a wheelchair. In September he asked for the prayers of supporters as he dropped from public view for several days to deal with such an issue.
Asheville Watchdog is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and Buncombe County. 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 firstname.lastname@example.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.