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Edwards will debate only once during NC-11 contest

Chuck Edwards speaks during a Republican Primary Forum in Macon County earlier this year. Cory Vaillancourt photo Chuck Edwards speaks during a Republican Primary Forum in Macon County earlier this year. Cory Vaillancourt photo

With just over 90 days remaining until November’s General Election, Republican nominee and state Sen. Chuck Edwards (R-Henderson) announced last week that he’d agree to only one joint candidate appearance for the entirety of the campaign, despite attending approximately a dozen Primary Election forums earlier this year and calling out those who did not.

Edwards’ financial relationship with the host of that lone joint candidate appearance raises questions about the event’s provenance and legitimacy. 

“As a scheduling reality, Senator Edwards will only be able to participate in one joint candidate debate or forum and therefore will not be able to attend on August 31 and September 1,” said Aubrey Woodard, campaign manager for Edwards, via email on July 28. 

Woodard’s message came after weeks of planning and discussions between the Edwards  campaign as well as those of his opponents, Democrat Jasmine Beach-Ferrara  and Libertarian David Coatney , in regard to an upcoming forum hosted by two of the largest independent media outlets in the district — The Smoky Mountain News and Blue Ridge Public Radio. 

Beach-Ferrara and Coatney have both confirmed their attendance at the forum, for which details will be announced next week. 

“Chuck Edwards is in hiding and it is clear why,” said Beach-Ferrara in a press release  issued on Aug. 3. “His extremism is not in line with the values of Western North Carolina.”

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Beach-Ferrara repeated the assertion during an Aug. 3 rally in Pack Square Park. 

“You know you are winning, up and down the ballot, when your opponent would rather hide than show up to debate you,” she said. “So let me go on record as saying I will meet Chuck Edwards anywhere, anytime for a debate.”

Libertarian Coatney agreed with Beach-Ferrara in a statement on Twitter  that accompanied a meme of Edwards as a character from Monty Python’s Holy Grail — “Brave Sir Robin,” a cowardly knight who was known for bravely running away from battle. 

“How can we trust [Edwards] to ‘show up’ for WNC in Congress if he can’t be bothered to show up for debates?” Coatney said. “The people have had enough with entitled politicians that don’t bother to show up. WNC deserves better!”

The last part of Coatney’s statement is an apparent dig at current Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-Henderson), who was one of the most absent members of the U.S. House  and set a limit of two joint candidate appearances during the spring Republican Primary Election contest that featured eight candidates and approximately a dozen forums across the district. 

Once Cawthorn fulfilled his pledge of two appearances, other candidates including Edwards, called him out on Twitter  for his absence. 

“Thank you, Transylvania and Buncombe GOP, for hosting the #NC11 debate last night,” Edwards wrote on April 12. “I want to commend 6 of my fellow candidates for understanding that half of any job is just showing up. Those of us who were there care enough about the future of WNC to do just that.”

Edwards’ tweet included a photograph of Cawthorn’s empty chair at the event. Considered the frontrunner at that time, Cawthorn lost to Edwards  on May 17 by 1,319 votes out of more than 88,000 cast, good for a margin of 1.5%. No runoff was needed. 

Michele Woodhouse, former NC-11 GOP chair and a candidate in that race, said she’d heard Edwards regularly make similar remarks about “showing up” throughout the Primary Election campaign. 

“Sen. Edwards said it at every forum that Rep. Cawthorn was not at,” Woodhouse said. 

She also voiced concern about the impact Edwards’ absence would have on constituents. 

“All three of those candidates owe it to the voters of Western North Carolina to make themselves available at each and every forum as they try to earn the votes,” Woodhouse said. “It’s a job interview and you can’t choose not to come to every one of the interviews that are put forth as an opportunity to share your ideas, your vision and your platform with constituents.”

Beach-Ferrara, Coatney and Edwards are locked in a contentious race for the 11th, although it’s still an uphill battle for everyone but the Republican. 

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Democrat Jasmine Beach-Ferrara said she would debate Edwards “anywhere, anytime.” Cory Vaillancourt photo

Nonpartisan mapping resource  puts the district at 53.6% Republican, based on composite vote totals from 2016 through 2020. 

Through June 30 of this year, data from the Federal Election Commission show Beach-Ferrara with a fundraising advantage. 

Beach-Ferrara has raised about $1.8 million , and had $237,000 on hand as of the reporting date. Edwards reported  raising $1.1 million over the same period — including $250,000 in personal funds loaned to the campaign — and had $117,000 on hand. Coatney trails both  with almost $16,000 raised. 

Of course, those totals don’t count eventual spends by PACs and super PACs. In 2020, more than $5 million  was spent, most of it to benefit Republicans. 

In September 2020, candidates Moe Davis and Madison Cawthorn both appeared  at a two-day  forum hosted live by SMN, BPR and Mountain Xpress. 

The candidates then went on to appear together at a forum hosted by Southwestern Community College in Sylva, another hosted by an Asheville real estate group, and then another pre-taped event hosted by a regional television station owned by a Maryland-based corporate chain. 

On Aug. 4, Edwards announced that this coming fall, he’d participate in a joint candidate event hosted by that station, WLOS, which is an affiliate of Sinclair Broadcast Group. 

In 2018, Sinclair forced nearly 200 affiliates  including WLOS  to read a promotional statement  on-air. 

NPR media correspondent David Folkenflick responded to the message, telling host Mary Louise Kelly that “The message isn’t a dog whistle. It’s more like a cannonball going off. They’re at once attacking their competitors in service of ostensibly praising their own professionalism. And they’re also saying, look; we’re a safe home for those of you who, like strong devotees of President Trump, believe that much of the media is involving fake news, involved in personal bias, is involved in trying to distort what you’re presented as supposedly objective, fair. Sinclair is contributing directly to that claim in hundreds of markets across the country.”

Reports from the FEC show that Sinclair employees have supported Republican congressional candidates in the past. Since 2016, Sinclair employees have contributed  almost $600,000 into congressional races across the nation, with more than 67% going to Republican candidates. 

At this point in the 2022 election cycle, Republicans have received almost 59% of $81,403 in contributions, according to finance watchdog

It doesn’t appear via campaign disclosures that Edwards has received any of it, however, he has through his campaign spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on advertising with Sinclair. 

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David Coatney, a Libertarian, wasn’t invited to the Sinclair forum. Coatney for Congress photo

On March 8 of this year, FEC records show the Edwards for Congress campaign making a $62,657  payment to Matson Media, a Columbia, South Carolina media buyer. The purpose of the payment, according to Edwards’ campaign finance report, was media buys. 

On March 14 and on March 18, the Edwards for Congress campaign made payments to Matson Media totaling $74,483 . Again, the purpose is listed as broadcast television ads. 

On April 4 and April 14, the Edwards for Congress campaign paid Matson Media more than $162,000  for television media buys. 

On April 29, the Edwards for Congress campaign made an $80,663  payment to Matson media for television media buys. 

All told, the payments made to Matson by the Edwards for Congress campaign for television media buys during the 2022 Republican Primary Election add up to more than $379,000. 

According to FCC disclosures, at least $247,000 of that total ended up with Sinclair and WLOS. 

A March 13 invoice from WLOS to Matson Media notes Chuck Edwards for Congress as the advertiser, and lays out a $14,917  charge for 24 spots. Another invoice from March 27 lists $18,700  for 30 spots. An additional invoice from the same day shows another $9,265  for 23 spots. 

Five separate   invoices   from   April 24   total  $115,387 for 220 spots. Another four   invoices   from   May 29  total $88,782 for 170 spots. 

Regardless of the financial relationship between Edwards and the host of his only joint candidate appearance, Woodhouse thinks candidates are doing voters a disservice when they refuse to explain themselves to voters. 

“When I served as district chair, I didn’t give Congressman Cawthorn direction and I’d probably be a bit reluctant to give candidate Edwards direction, but what I would tell him is this: when you look at the landscape of the 11th Congressional District, when you look at the increasing number of unaffiliated voters, when you look at the importance of holding this congressional district, every opportunity is an opportunity to differentiate yourself from Joe Biden’s policies,” she said. “Never miss an opportunity to let constituents in Western North Carolina know where you stand and how you will vote and the ways that you will serve them.”

When Edwards made his WLOS announcement, Beach-Ferrara, who spent less than $80,000 with Sinclair during the 2022 Primary Election, had yet to receive any invitation to any WLOS event. As of press time on Aug. 9, Beach-Ferrara had not confirmed her attendance at any WLOS forum. 

When reached by WLOS on Aug, 8, Coatney was told that he wouldn’t be invited to the WLOS event. 

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