Madison Cawthorn has lost the Republican primary to represent North Carolina’s 11th Congressional District, all but ensuring the 26-year-old’s career in the House of Representatives is over after two erratic years riddled with controversy.
Cawthorn conceded the race to State Sen. Chuck Edwards on Tuesday night. The Associated Press confirmed later that Edwards did indeed win, and did indeed clear the 30-percent threshold the state requires to avoid a runoff. Cawthorn took advantage of the runoff format during his successful 2020 campaign after having nabbed second place in the first round of voting by a slim margin. He won’t get the chance this year.
The race to replace Cawthorn was a crowded one, but Edwards was the only candidate with a real shot. His campaign was funded in part by North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis, who turned on Cawthorn, as did many of the incumbent’s colleagues in Congress. Despite the opposition of the establishment, a poll from late April showed Cawthorn leading Edwards 38 percent to 21 percent, with 21 percent undecided and the rest of the candidates hovering in the low single digits. But as Cawthorn is well aware, a lot can happen in a few weeks.
Cawthorn’s defeat comes as he struggles to contend with a series of scandals, and as his fitness for office is questioned across the political spectrum. In March, he was caught driving with a revoked license for a second time. The same month, he made claims of congressional orgies and cocaine use, only to reportedly walk back the comments during a meeting with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy. In April, records revealed he spent an exorbitant amount of taxpayer money on food and lodging for his staff. A few weeks later he was caught trying to bring a loaded gun through airport security. He was implicated in an insider trading scheme around the same time. Days later The Daily Beast reported that he may have violated House rules by overpaying his chief of staff.
Accompanying the string of bad headlines have been a series of leaked images and video of Cawthorn. There were photos of him dressed up in lingerie on a cruise. There were videos that were a little more sexually suggestive. The provenance of the dumps is unclear, but it appears to have been a coordinated effort to smear Cawthorn ahead of the primary, at least in part in retaliation over his Washington GOP coke-orgy claims. It certainly got the attention of former President Trump. Rolling Stone reported earlier this month that Trump was “completely weirded out” by Cawthorn’s antics, and that he wondered if he was “fucking his cousin.” (Cawthorn has not been accused of fucking his cousin.)
Nevertheless, Trump ultimately reiterated his support for Cawthorn — after weeks of calculated public silence on the matter — in a statement released Monday, writing that though he’s made some “foolish mistakes,” he should get a “second chance.”
But if the seemingly tepid nature of Trump’s late-in-the-game statement didn’t make it clear enough, behind the scenes the former president and current leader of the Republican Party kept on questioning if his young MAGA apprentice had it in him to win. According to a source with direct knowledge of the matter, Trump was even privately voicing his doubts about the likelihood of Cawthorn’s primary victory — less than a week before issuing that statement — and asked if Cawthorn was ever truly “ready for the big leagues,” as this source paraphrased.
It isn’t hard to discern why Trump held firm on the scandal-ridden freshman lawmaker. Cawthorn began his time in office with promises of calling out Trump when necessary, but he quickly warped himself into a MAGA loyalist. Rolling Stone reported last fall that he was one of several lawmakers whose staff or who themselves participated in the planning of the rally that preceded the riot at the Capitol last Jan. 6. A group of lawyers even brought a lawsuit attempting to disqualify Cawthorn from office for his alleged role in the insurrection, to no avail.
Trump likely knew that as long as Cawthorn is in office, he’d have one less lawmaker to worry about should he try to strong-arm his way back into the White House in 2024. It might not make much difference if and when Edwards wins the safely Republican district in November. The soon-to-be newly elected House member has touted himself as an “outsider,” promoted any connection to Trump he can find, and, yes, railed about election integrity.
William Vaillancourt contributed to this report.