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Trump backing not enough to save Cawthorn in NC primary

Youngest member of Congress no stranger to controversy

Rep. Madison Cawthorn, R-N.C., speaks to President Donald Trump's supporters from the Ellipse at the White House on Jan. 6, 2021.
Rep. Madison Cawthorn, R-N.C., speaks to President Donald Trump's supporters from the Ellipse at the White House on Jan. 6, 2021. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

North Carolina Republican Rep. Madison Cawthorn, a 26-year-old freshman with a knack for grabbing headlines, on Tuesday became the first incumbent backed by former President Donald Trump to lose a primary this year.

State Sen. Chuck Edwards, who launched his campaign when had Cawthorn been running in another district and had the support from some Washington lobbyists and Sen. Thom Tillis, led the voting in the GOP primary in the western North Carolina mountains district. With an estimated 99 percent of the vote counted when the AP called the race at 11:09 p.m., Edwards had 33.4 percent to Cawthorn’s 31.9 percent; six other candidates shared the rest.

In a tweet, Cawthorn congratulated Edwards and urged Republicans “to rally behind the Republican ticket to defeat the Democrats’ nominee this November.”

Cawthorn’s loss is a steep fall for the youngest member of Congress, who arrived on Capitol Hill after a prime-time speaking slot at the 2020 Republican National Convention. He developed a reputation as a pro-Trump crusader but angered some of his colleagues and brought on several self-inflicted wounds that made him vulnerable. 

Cawthorn’s first bid for office came in a 12-candidate race two years ago that ended with him going to a runoff against Lynda Bennett, who had support from Trump and former Rep. Mark Meadows, who represented the district before becoming Trump’s chief of staff. Cawthorn won the nomination, and Meadows and Trump then backed him. He showed his penchant for drama during his 2020 RNC convention speech, when he rose from the wheelchair he’s used since a car accident left him nearly paralyzed, and leaned on a walker. 

Days after being sworn in, Cawthorn spoke at the Jan. 6 rally that took place near the White House before rioters stormed the Capitol. A group of North Carolina voters tried to force him off the ballot because of his involvement that day. The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments in the case earlier this month after a federal judge blocked the challenge earlier this year. 

Throughout his term, Cawthorn courted controversy. He cleaned a gun while on a Zoom meeting of the Veterans Affairs Committee, and was cited by Charlotte police for trying to bring a gun on a plane. He called Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy a “thug” and said on a podcast that fellow lawmakers used cocaine and invited him to orgies. 

‘Foolish mistakes’

Trump endorsed Cawthorn over a year ago and this week used his social media platform, Truth Social, to urge voters to support him despite the controversies.

“When Madison was first elected to Congress, he did a great job. Recently, he made some foolish mistakes, which I don’t believe he’ll make again … let’s give Madison a second chance!” Trump said, according to Newsweek.

Edwards first declared he would run for the 11th District seat after the Republican-controlled legislature redistricted the state and Cawthorn said he would run in a new district. The incumbent decided to run again in the 11th, however, after a court threw out the legislature’s map. 

McDonalds franchisee wins

Edwards was appointed to the North Carolina Senate in 2016 after winning the district primary. He has said his business background — he and his wife own seven McDonald’s franchises — has helped shape his work in the state Senate.

In one campaign ad, he said he was a “proven conservative that will fight and win,” and he urged voters “to go watch the Kardashians” if they wanted a celebrity.

Edwards earned support from several Republicans, including Tillis, who became frustrated with Cawthorn. His campaign received $14,000, mostly from PACs, last week in the final run-up to Election Day.

Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the race in November as Solid Republican.

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