There’s just one woman in the hard-line conservative House Freedom Caucus, but there could be another next year if the group’s political arm gets it way.
Eighteen candidates are running to replace Republican Mark Meadows, the former chairman of the Freedom Caucus, in North Carolina’s 11th District. The House Freedom Fund and Meadows are backing real estate agent and GOP activist Lynda Bennett, the only woman in the 11-person Republican field.
Meadows had already been accused of tipping off Bennett, a friend of his wife’s, to the opening up of this recently redrawn, but still safe, GOP seat. Bennett announced her candidacy just hours after Meadows first shared the news of his retirement with CQ Roll Call and Politico Playbook on Dec. 19 — the day before the filing deadline to run and two days after the deadline for state officeholders to switch elections.
But until recently, the retiring congressman had remained publicly neutral.
“Meadows told me he was not endorsing anybody in the race,” Wayne King, a Meadows staffer who resigned so he could run for the seat without violating ethics rules, recalled on Monday, describing a conversation with his former boss from a few weeks ago.
“It was my original intent to stay neutral in the race. However my silence in the primary was being misused by some candidates to present [an] inaccurate picture for political gain,” Meadows told CQ Roll Call via text message on Tuesday from New Hampshire, where he was campaigning for President Donald Trump.
“There are a number of credible candidates in the race but it is my belief that Lynda is best suited to advance the America First agenda in Washington DC while making sure NC voices are clearly heard,” he wrote.
Bennett, who did not return multiple requests for comment, has splashed the Meadows endorsement over her website and on social media. The congressman hasn’t yet publicized his endorsement on his social media accounts or in any ads. In-person early voting for the March 3 primary begins Thursday.
Backing a woman
The Freedom Fund’s endorsement in this primary is a departure from its involvement in another recent North Carolina primary, where it backed state Rep. Greg Murphy over pediatrician Joan Perry in the special election primary in the open 3rd District last summer.
GOP women’s groups and all 13 female House Republicans, including Freedom Caucus member Debbie Lesko, had rallied around Perry since she could have boosted the party’s dwindling female ranks in the House.
The similarity in both races, though, is the personal involvement of Meadows. He endorsed Murphy despite the candidate’s support for a version of Medicaid expansion in the state legislature, which would normally be anathema to Freedom Caucus members. Meadows, who has known Murphy since he entered the state House in 2015, told CQ Roll Call last summer that their wives had been friendly. Starring in ads for Murphy, Meadows used his alliance with the president to argue Murphy was the biggest pro-Trump candidate.
Last fall, Debbie Meadows, along with other wives of Freedom Caucus members, started Right Women PAC to elect “solidly conservative women.” Debbie Meadows and Polly Jordan, the wife of Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, held several events with Bennett in North Carolina last week.
Speaking at the White House last week after his acquittal in the Senate impeachment trial, Trump invoked the political influence Debbie Meadows has over her husband, when he suggested she got the congressman to back his presidential bid.
“I don’t think you had a choice, because of your wife, but thank her,” Trump said.
The House Freedom Fund has endorsed six women, including Bennett, so far this cycle. Besides Bennett, two others are running in solid Republican seats.
Although Bennett has the backing of Meadows’ group, she doesn’t yet have the support of any of the more established groups that get involved in races to help Republican women, such as VIEW PAC, Winning for Women or the leadership PAC of New York Rep. Elise Stefanik.
She does have the support of the Senate Conservatives Fund, which did not respond to requests for comment about how it intends to influence the race. The anti-tax Club for Growth said it does not have a favorite in the race.
The rest of the field
King, a former state party vice chairman, had worked for Meadows since he was elected to Congress in 2012.
“I want to take my boss’ job,” he says in a radio ad, before explaining that the congressman is not running for reelection. A former district director and deputy chief of staff, King believes his constituent-service work sets him apart.
“Most of the candidates will likely be similar on their votes in D.C., but nobody has any experience except me in providing constituents help,” he said in an interview.
Others in the mix include state Sen. Jim Davis, who was able to file for Congress because he’d already decided not run for reelection. An orthodontist and former Macon County commissioner, he’s running on his experience in the North Carolina General Assembly.
In his TV ad, airing in the Asheville market through March 3, Davis holds up a handgun and says, “Liberals want to make this illegal.” He then slides a plate of hamburgers in front of him and adds, “Liberals want to ban these too.”
Retired real estate investor Chuck Archerd, who received 14 percent of the vote in the 2018 primary without actually campaigning against Meadows, billed himself as a “conservative Trump warrior” in an early campaign video.
Dan Driscoll, a young Army veteran who grew up in western North Carolina but just moved back across the state from Winston-Salem, is also generating buzz. Driscoll had picked up checks from Gen. Stanley McChrystal and the vice president of Juul Labs by the end of 2019.
“It’s a wide-open field,” North Carolina Rep. Patrick T. McHenry said Tuesday. “And given the short time frame, it is a hell of a sprint to the runoff.”
If no candidate receives more than 30 percent of the vote, the top-two finishers will face off on May 12 for the GOP nomination.
Still a GOP seat
Redistricting has made this seat less Republican than it used to be, mostly because of the inclusion of liberal-leaning Asheville. Trump carried the current version of Meadows’ district by 29 points. But under the new lines, the district would have backed him by 17 points, according to calculations by Daily Kos Elections.
The president praised Meadows during his freewheeling remarks at the White House last week.
“He’d only win by 40 points, but he’s announcing that he’ll be not running this time,” Trump joked. (Meadows actually won his last reelection by 20 points.)
“Do you have somebody good to run? Somebody going to win your district by at least 20 points, please?” Trump asked.
Five Democrats are bidding for the 11th District. Retired Air Force Col. Moe Davis, a former chief prosecutor at Guantanamo Bay, announced his candidacy before Meadows said he was retiring and has raised the most money of the Democratic field. National Democrats, however, don’t see this as a competitive seat unless the national winds are blowing very strongly in their direction come November.