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Cawthorn’s loss means new dynamic in NC-11 race

Rep. Madison Cawthorn speaks to a small group of supporters on Tuesday, May 17. Jeffrey Delannoy photo Rep. Madison Cawthorn speaks to a small group of supporters on Tuesday, May 17. Jeffrey Delannoy photo

Huddled in a semicircle around a blacked-out glass door in the bay of a former auto detail shop in downtown Hendersonville, a few dozen supporters and a handful of national media outlets waited anxiously for Madison Cawthorn to appear.

It was a long way, even metaphorically, from Cawthorn’s vineyard galas of 2020; those days were perhaps the Golden Age of Trumpism, the highest heights of the magic carpet ride Donald Trump took Republicans on until, like Icarus drawing too close to the sun, everything melted away. 

They dressed the place up anyway, with patriotic bouquets, motivational posters and the same campaign signs that had adorned Point Lookout Vineyards two years prior, when Cawthorn — who wasn’t so much a candidate as he was the shepherd of a movement — was touted as the future of the America First agenda. 

But on the night of Tuesday, May 17, after the Primary Election polls had closed, Cawthorn sat with his closest advisors in a closed-off war room, eagerly awaiting his political fate. After a painfully long stretch of bad press documenting his numerous and public unforced errors as well as the more salacious aspects of his personal life, Cawthorn was now in the fight of his political life. 

“My friends, I genuinely believe we will take a victory out of today,” he said, the rapid-fire clicking of camera shutters punctuating cheers from the crowd. “I believe that we will not have a runoff election and so we should be moving forward to a historic majority to rebuild America.”

An hour later, Cawthorn would concede to his Republican opponent.  

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As soon as the early voting results dropped, so did the mood inside the tiny campaign headquarters. Cawthorn was down by almost 4,000 votes, right out of the gate to a three-term incumbent state senator — his own state senator — Chuck Edwards.

“We know that Cawthorn voters are normally people who show up day of,” Cawthorn told The Smoky Mountain News, about halfway through the night. “When we’re looking at it, we’ve seen that already [Edwards’] entire state senate district has basically all reported in. That’s his base of real support, his stronghold. His position is not completely tenable. We think that this race will tighten up.”

Cawthorn was right on two points. The race did tighten up, with Edwards ultimately prevailing by fewer than 1,400 votes out of almost 90,000 cast. Edwards won only three of 15 counties — basically, his senate district. In the end, Cawthorn trailed Edwards by 1.5%, but as Edwards had surpassed the 30% runoff election threshold, the contest was over. 

Acknowledging the negative impact of his recent scandals, Cawthorn blamed a familiar cast of characters. 

“When you see what’s going on in Washington, D.C., the coordinated strike that’s being deployed, it’s hard to sit back,” he said. “It’s using elements of the left-wing media, but it’s also coming from within my own party. It is being funded and coordinated by people within my own party.”

He also set a course that he’d follow in the days after the election, calling for the rise of something called “Dark MAGA” and publishing a list of “patriots” who’d stuck by him during trying times. 

“The biggest thing I’ve learned since I’ve been in Washington is that we will never truly be able to defeat this authoritarian ideology that’s going on in our country if we don’t first really clean up our own party,” he said. “You never thought you’d be stabbed in the back so many times by the people that you thought were your friends.”

Indeed, Cawthorn’s seven Republican opponents seized upon every opportunity they could to attack him, largely skirting the steady stream of spicy videos and unsavory controversies in favor of his poor attendance record on Capitol Hill. Voters on Election Day, most of them Republicans, told the Washington Post  that Cawthorn’s perceived maturity was the real issue. 

Edwards stayed generally above the fray, telling voters that he was the only person in the field who’d actually done the things everyone else — including Cawthorn — said they wanted to do. 

“I believe that people in the mountains recognized that it was time that we had someone in Congress that has a proven, conservative track record of actually getting things done,” he told SMN on May 20. “I ran my entire campaign off of being an experienced legislator with proven track record of cutting taxes and balancing budgets. I believe that is what resonated with the voters of this district.”

Edwards said that Cawthorn was gracious and tactful in his concession, offering to help Republicans in any way he could. 

Some Democrats, meanwhile, privately hoped that Cawthorn would win, seeing him as an easy target who’d alienated many establishment Republicans during his brief flirtation with running in a new congressional district. 

Compared to Cawthorn, Edwards is squeaky-clean, although that doesn’t mean that the Democratic nominee, two-term Buncombe County Commissioner Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, won’t try to tie Edwards to the dearth of leadership in NC-11 that predates even Cawthorn. 

During a May 21 meeting of Democrats at Tuscola High School in Haywood County, Beach-Ferrara said that while Edwards’ style may differ from Cawthorn’s, his substance does not. 

“The politics that Chuck Edwards brings to the race very much represent a continuation of what we’ve seen from Madison Cawthorn and Mark Meadows before him,” Beach-Ferrara said of Cawthorn’s predecessor, who abandoned his seat just before the federal government passed some of the largest spending packages in United States history. “It’s a mix of extremist positions, whether it’s refusing to call Jan. 6 an instruction, promoting the politics of division, or promoting personal gain in various ways over serving the people Western North Carolina.”

Beach-Ferrara won every single county in NC-11, and similarly avoided a runoff by taking 60% of the vote in a field of six. Katie Dean performed admirably by collecting more than 25% of the vote, but it wasn’t near enough to defeat Beach-Ferrara, who’s been perceived as the Democratic frontrunner since the day she entered the race. 

Now, the General Election campaign begins with Edwards trying to regain the confidence of Republicans and unaffiliated voters repulsed by Cawthorn’s tenure, just as Beach-Ferrara tries to carry her liberal message outside the Buncombe bubble, into rural America. 

“This is a Western North Carolina campaign,” she said. “That means being present in organizing and connecting with people and listening a lot in every single county across the district. We are ready to build on our momentum from Tuesday night.”

The 2022 General Election will be held on Tuesday, Nov. 8. 

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