Like former President Donald Trump, first-term North Carolina Congressman Madison Cawthorn has tested voters. How far is too far?
A series of inflammatory statements from Cawthorn — who will appear at a Trump rally in North Carolina on Saturday — led some fellow Republicans to criticize him, and it’s testing whether voters will turn to one of seven GOP candidates who are challenging him in next month’s state primary.
Cawthorn, who at 26 is the youngest member of Congress, has in the past been accused of sexual misconduct. He said there would be “bloodshed” if the next election was stolen, and he called those arrested during the Jan. 6 attack “political hostages.”
Now two more:
Last month, he called Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy “a thug” and said the Ukrainian government is “incredibly corrupt.”
And on a conservative podcast, Cawthorn talked about watching people do cocaine and about what he said is “sexual perversion” in Washington, D.C.
“Then all of a sudden you get invited to ‘Hey we’re going to have a sexual get-together at one of your homes. You should come,’ ” he said on the podcast. “Um, what did you just ask me to come to? And then you realize they are asking you to come to an orgy.”
Under fire from House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy, Cawthorn said he had exaggerated on the podcast when talking about orgies and cocaine, McCarthy said.
Cawthorn represents North Carolina’s 11th Congressional District in the mountains. While the district includes the liberal city of Asheville, it favors Republicans by about 10 percentage points, according to Dave’s Redistricting Atlas.
The Trump rally on Saturday night is on the other side of the state, near Raleigh, but Cawthorn’s appearance with the former president may give him a boost at a time when a number of top Republicans have harshly criticized him.
North Carolina Republican Sen. Thom Tillis recently endorsed a state senator, Chuck Edwards, one of Cawthorn’s opponents in the May 17 GOP primary. Tillis said Edwards would “never embarrass Western North Carolina with a consistent pattern of juvenile behavior, outlandish statements, and untruthfulness.”
Some voters feel the same. “I think everyone has pretty much jumped ship,” said George Erwin, a retired sheriff from Henderson County, south of Asheville.
Erwin said he was at first impressed by Cawthorn’s resilience after he was paralyzed from a car accident when he was 18.
But after Cawthorn spoke at Trump’s Washington, D.C., rally before the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, Erwin disavowed him. He said Cawthorn isn’t trustworthy.
“The people in the mountains, most of us are Scotch-Irish heritage,” Erwin said. “We like to look people in the eye, ask them a pointed question, get a straight answer, shake their hand and feel their hand grip.”
He is supporting Army veteran Rod Honeycutt in the primary.
But in the age of Trump, does a rebuke — however harsh — by a former sheriff and a sitting senator really matter?
The answer may be: not so much.
The town of Columbus is in Polk County, on the edge of the mountains about 45 minutes from Asheville. In 2020, Trump defeated Joe Biden by 25 percentage points in Polk.
Paul Heyer owns a barbershop in downtown Columbus. When asked about Tillis’ criticism of Cawthorn, Heyer shrugged.
“To me he’s the lesser of the evils,” Heyer said. “I’m not a big Tillis fan.”
He voted for Cawthorn in 2020. He said he isn’t concerned that Cawthorn last year announced he was going to run in another congressional district before changing his mind and staying in the mountains.
“As long as he gets the job done that I agree with or with what’s good for us in North Carolina,” Heyer said. “I don’t have a problem with him stirring the pot. The pot needs to be stirred a little bit. Sometimes the pot needs to be emptied.”
Joyce Ferguson, who is retired, has lived in Polk County for four years. She was eating lunch outside at a park this week.
“I follow him some,” she said about Cawthorn. “I like him. I believe in what he stands for. Sometimes he may be a little too outspoken … but I’m for what he believes in. He’s taken a stand where a lot of them won’t. So I’ll vote for him.”
Earlier this year, a group of never-Trump Republicans tried to disqualify Cawthorn from running, saying his Jan. 6 speech made him an “insurrectionist,” just as Confederates in the Civil War were. The group said he was disqualified from holding office under Section 3 of the 14th Amendment, passed after Reconstruction.
A federal judge has so far blocked their effort.
Twenty-year-old Noah Jackson, a conservative who works in a Christian bookstore in Columbus, was bothered by Cawthorn’s Jan. 6 speech.
He said he voted for Trump, Tillis and Cawthorn — but won’t vote for Cawthorn this year. He said the congressman’s recent unsubstantiated comments about orgies and cocaine were too much.
“I mean, you can’t just say that your heroes that you looked up to before you ran for Congress — the reason why you ran — are participating in these heinous actions,” he said.
In total, there are seven other Republicans running in the May primary, none with a high profile. If no candidate gets more than 30%, there will be a runoff in July.
Some Democrats are trying to influence the Republican primary. Moe Davis, who lost to Cawthorn in 2020, is encouraging fellow Democrats to temporarily switch their registration to unaffiliated so they can vote in the GOP primary. He wants them to support Navy veteran Wendy Nevarez, who says she is the only moderate in the race.
In Buncombe County, home to Asheville, nearly 800 Democrats switched their registration to unaffiliated in February and March — seven times as many, as compared with the same time period before the 2018 primary.