RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — U.S. Rep. Madison Cawthorn struggled Tuesday to hold on to his western North Carolina seat, facing a stiff challenge from a state legislator in the Republican primary.
With most votes counted, election results in the 11th District Republican primary showed the first-term congressman and pro-Donald Trump firebrand slightly trailing state Sen. Chuck Edwards.
Six other GOP candidates were in the race, which became a test of whether voters would grant Cawthorn another term despite his personal and political stumbles.
Several GOP leaders have turned away from the 26-year-old congressman, with some citing a series of unforced errors, such as calling Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy a “thug” after Russia invaded his country. Cawthorn also infuriated fellow Republicans in Congress when he alleged on a podcast that he had been invited to an orgy in Washington.
Cawthorn has banked on his successful fundraising, social media presence and vocal support for the former president to help him win the 11th Congressional District nomination again.
Edwards, an owner of McDonald’s franchises, received endorsements from U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis and the state’s top GOP legislative leaders. A super PAC allied with Tillis ran ads against Cawthorn, one of which called him a “reckless embarrassment” and ”dishonest disaster.”
The primary was open to Republican and unaffiliated voters. Both Edwards and Cawthorn had received more than 30% of the vote as of Tuesday evening, so a July runoff could be averted if that holds true.
The ultimate winner will take on Democratic and Libertarian nominees in the fall. Six candidates were in Tuesday’s Democratic primary.
Within days of taking office in early 2021, Cawthorn spoke at the “Stop the Steal” rally questioning Joe Biden’s presidential election victory that preceded the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection. Cawthorn soon became a leading spokesperson for Trump’s “America First” policies and conservatives in the culture wars. Trump has endorsed him.
Besides the remark about being invited to an orgy, Cawthron said he had seen leaders in the movement to end drug addiction use cocaine. House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy reprimanded him publicly for the remarks.
Cawthorn has been stopped by police on driving citations three times since October and caught with guns at airport checkpoints twice since last year, including last month. And videos released in the campaign’s final weeks showed Cawthorn in sexually suggestive poses, which he said were from several years ago — meant to be funny and nothing else.
Cawthorn acknowledged speeding and gun citations as failings, but said the videos were part of a “drip campaign” by his political enemies, of which he has included some Republicans, to flood the district with negative stories.
Cawthorn was seen as a rising star by many conservatives when in 2020 he won a primary runoff for the seat being vacated by Mark Meadows, Trump’s chief of staff.
Cawthorn, who uses a wheelchair after being partially paralyzed from a car accident as a teenager, turned 25 — the constitutionally mandated minimum age to serve in the House — during the 2020 campaign.
In an election-eve post on his social media site Truth Social, Trump asked primary voters to back him again: “Recently, he made some foolish mistakes, which I don’t believe he’ll make again … let’s give Madison a second chance!”
His biggest political mistake may have occurred last fall, when he decided to run for a different U.S. House seat that could have led to an easier reelection bid, only to return to the 11th District when redistricting litigation shifted the lines again. Edwards and others accuse Cawthorn of trying to walk away from his constituents for political convenience.