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Debate Fact-Checker: Zingers, Jabs and Lies

Congressional candidates’ claims rated for truthfulness

By Sally Kestin and Peter H. Lewis
AVL Watchdog

In their first public face-off, the candidates vying for the increasingly competitive 11th district congressional seat, Republican Madison Cawthorn and Democrat Moe Davis, touted their differences on just about all issues and hurled accusations, with each calling the other “fast and loose” with the facts. Who was telling the truth? AVL Watchdog fact-checked some of the claims made at the Sept. 4-5 debates at Western Carolina University and rated them as true, false or misleading.

TOPIC: Welfare

THE CLAIM: In the first debate (at 1:17:08), Davis accused Cawthorn of wanting “to end welfare to balance the budget because it encourages single women, particularly minority women to have more babies so they get bigger checks.”

FACT-CHECK: We find this claim to be TRUE.

At a May 21 meeting at the Cherokee County Republican Party, Cawthorn said he had recently talked to Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., about “how important it is to wean the American people off of entitlements.”

“I don’t think it’s too far-fetched to start just cutting 1 percent or maybe 2 or 3 percent of entitlements that we’re sending out to people for these welfare states just down so we can slowly wean people off of entitlements,” Cawthorn said. “That way, we can get our country closer to a balanced budget to where we can start running in the black.”

And in a July 20 discussion with the right-wing provocateur talk show host Charlie Kirk, Cawthorn said (at 44:40) that “one of the greatest problems we have in our country is fatherless homes, especially in minority communities.”

“We subsidize fatherlessness because there are so many financial benefits to these young women to not get married and have more children because then they can get more subsidies for those children,” Cawthorn told Kirk. “You have a woman who has seven kids from three different fathers, but none of those dads are around.”

CANDIDATE RESPONSE: “Madison Cawthorn firmly believes that the best possible social program is a job,” the campaign told AVL Watchdog

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TOPIC: Green New Deal

BACKGROUND: The Green New Deal is a congressional resolution that outlines a national plan for combating climate change while also proposing dozens of programs to address economic inequality and promote social and racial justice. It calls for the United States to wean itself from fossil fuels and achieve 100 percent power from clean, renewable sources by 2030. The Green New Deal resolution is nonbinding, and nothing in it would become law even if Congress approves it.

THE CLAIM: In the second debate (at 49:30), Davis said: "My opponent keeps bringing up the Green New Deal and things that I've said in settings. And I've said I do like the Green New Deal, but I've also refused to commit to endorse it, to supporting it …”

Cawthorn then held up a piece of paper that, he said, showed Davis’s website on April 27, including the statement, "That's why I support the Green New Deal.” The statement was later deleted from Davis’s website. 

CAWTHORN DAVIS DEBATE PHOTO  

FACT CHECK: We find Davis’s claim that he has refused to support the Green New Deal to be FALSE. On his Moe Davis for Congress Facebook page, Davis wrote on Dec. 18, 2019: “It is our moral obligation to preserve and protect our land, air and water for our children and future generations. Climate change is real and we can’t afford to wait until we reach a tipping point to act. We are already running out of time. That’s why I support the Green New Deal. A focus on green energy and green technology will create jobs and protect our precious Western North Carolina environment.”

CANDIDATE RESPONDS: “Yes, Col. Davis supports the Green New Deal. He has said that repeatedly. But here's the nuance. There are something like 48 different components to the Green New Deal. Col. Davis hasn't signed off on all 48,” the campaign said in a statement. “Yes, he broadly supports the goals of the Green New Deal. But he's not going to commit to signing off on legislation until he sees the actual bills.”

As for the deleted statement Cawthorn referenced, Davis’s campaign said, “[We] were revising our website recently and inserting new photos after Col. Davis shaved off his beard; we updated the content to better reflect his viewpoint.”

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TOPIC: Covid-19 -- Real or a Hoax?

THE CLAIM: In the first debate (at 34:00), Cawthorn was asked if he took the public health threat from the coronavirus pandemic seriously. “My fiancé works in health care,” he said. “I know from talking to her because she's actually been with the patients who are suffering from Covid-19 that it's no hoax… I encourage every single one of my followers and people in the country that if you need to wear a mask, if you are in that area of your life where you may have a pre-existing condition or you're at an age where Covid-19 will greatly affect you, I encourage you, please practice social distancing, please wear a mask and if I'm around you, I will wear a mask myself.”

FACT CHECK: We find this claim to be MISLEADING.

Cawthorn has appeared at numerous campaign events throughout the pandemic without a mask, often with seniors in attendance. In photos, few, if any, of his supporters are wearing masks, and Cawthorn is pictured shaking hands.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends everyone wear a mask in public and stay at least six feet away from others. Cawthorn's statements make clear he views wearing masks to be a personal choice, not a public policy issue, and suggests that social-distancing and mask-wearing precautions are mainly for the old and sick. 

CAWTHORN FOREST RALLY PHOTO

At the May 21st Cherokee Republican event (at 6:30), Cawthorn answered a question about absentee ballots and said, “I don’t really think that Covid-19 is that dangerous of a virus.” 

And in an interview airing on WKRK radio in Murphy, shortly after North Carolina moved into Phase 2 of the reopening, Cawthorn expressed frustration at the government’s pace.  

“It's far past time that we allow people to start going out and just enjoy our economy as a whole,” he said (at 14:40). “If we drop the government mandates, we could all go back to living a roaring economy again tomorrow.”

Cawthorn continued (at 17:30) that his friends who owned businesses had no objection to closing when “they were estimating on the low end was that two million Americans were going to be dead from this virus by this summer.” But when “a very, very few of us actually knew someone who had gotten a symptomatic version of Covid-19, and none of us started seeing, you know, dead bodies lying in the streets, we said, ‘I think this was overblown.’ ” Cawthorn blamed “the mainstream media” for sensationalizing the virus “and because of that, we just destroyed our economy for no reason.” 

CANDIDATE RESPONSE: A Cawthorn spokesman said the candidate “believes that Covid-19 is no hoax and that all residents of NC-11 ought to take the precautions that they believe are necessary in order to remain healthy.”

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TOPIC: Assault Weapons

BACKGROUND: In 1994 Congress passed a 10-year Federal Assault Weapons Ban on the manufacture, transfer, or possession of certain military-style civilian semiautomatic rifles and high-capacity ammunition magazines. The ban expired Sept. 13, 2004. Periodic efforts in Congress to renew the ban have been unsuccessful. 

THE CLAIM: In the first debate (at 44:30), Cawthorn said: "My opponent at a fundraiser with his liberal friends said that he wants to ban all assault rifles, but he can't actually say that out loud because then what would happen is the red voters wouldn't vote for him." 

FACT-CHECK: Cawthorn’s statement is a distortion. We find the first part of Cawthorn’s accusation — that Davis wants to ban all assault weapons — to be FALSE. As for Cawthorn’s assertion that Davis says things in private that he won’t say in public, we find that to be TRUE, but we also note that in our long experience most politicians do the same.

Davis, a gun-owner, says he supports “the Constitutional right to own pistols, rifles and shotguns,” but says he supports “more stringent requirements to purchase military-style assault weapons,” including requiring purchasers to apply for a permit, pay a fee, and undergo a background investigation that includes mandatory mental health records checks and reporting of any arrests involving an act of violence. Applicants would also have to complete a full-day gun safety course. Davis consistently argues for restrictions on sales of those weapons, which, he argues, is not the same as supporting a ban. We found no record of Davis calling for a ban on high-capacity semiautomatic rifles.

However, in The Smoky Mountain News, Davis was paraphrased saying in January that in a perfect world, only military personnel have assault weapons. And, according to a report in The Blue Banner, a student news publication at the University of North Carolina-Asheville, Davis attended a small fundraising gathering in Asheville in February. “Davis said he does not disagree with banning assault rifles, but he does believe he would lose the election if he made that opinion public,” the reporter wrote. The story quoted Davis as saying: “We just can’t cram it down their throats or we’re not going to win.” In the first debate, Davis said, “Look, I agree I would like to have no assault weapons on the street, but I put my policy out there and voters can look at it, and if I don’t keep my word, then fire me in 22 months.”

CANDIDATE RESPONDS: Cawthorn’s campaign said the accusation was supported by the combination of Davis’s statements, but it did not provide evidence that Davis has advocated banning high-capacity semiautomatic rifles.

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TOPIC: Cawthorn’s Money

THE CLAIM: In both debates, Davis repeatedly called Cawthorn a multi-millionaire and on the second night (at 57:38) questioned his  qualifications for Congress as “a 25-year-old with a $30 million settlement.”

FACT-CHECK: Cawthorn is 25, but the statement about a $30 million settlement is FALSE.

Cawthorn filed three lawsuits in Florida over his 2014 automobile accident that left him partially paralyzed and in a wheelchair. Cawthorn was a passenger in a SUV driven by his friend, who dozed at the wheel, ran off a highway and hit a concrete barrier wall. He told Charlie Kirk they were going about 70 mph in a construction zone.

Cawthorn settled with an insurance company for $3 million and then filed another $30 million suit against the insurer, claiming it acted in bad faith. The court ruled in favor of the insurance company.

Cawthorn won a separate $3 million settlement against the construction company working on the highway, according to testimony from his 2017 deposition. Cawthorn received a total of $6 million in settlements, he testified. One lawsuit is still pending. He has said he incurred about $3 million in medical debt.

CANDIDATE RESPONSE: A spokesman for Davis acknowledged that the candidate erred in saying Cawthorn had received $30 million.

AVL Watchdog is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and Buncombe County.  Sally Kestin is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter. Peter H. Lewis is a former senior writer and editor at The New York Times. Contact us at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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