The once-promising political career of Rep. Madison Cawthorn has collapsed as shockingly as it began, after Republican voters in North Carolina’s 11th District rejected his reelection bid and instead voted for prominent state Sen. Chuck Edwards to be the GOP nominee in November’s election.
Shortly before midnight, the Associated Press called the race, with Edwards garnering more than 33 percent of the vote and Cawthorn getting just under 32 percent.
Before the race was called on Tuesday night, multiple news outlets reported that Cawthorn called Edwards to concede. In a tweet, Cawthorn congratulated Edwards and said it was time for the GOP to “rally behind the Republican ticket to defeat the Democrats’ nominee this November.”
That means the onetime rising GOP star will be out of a job come January 2023, having spent just a single term representing this swath of western North Carolina.
Cawthorn’s loss represents a massive victory for the state’s GOP establishment, which launched a brutal and expensive campaign to take down Cawthorn, after the 26-year old firebrand made a few missteps too many.
Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC), the most high-profile Cawthorn foe in the state GOP, intervened forcefully on behalf of Edwards; a PAC linked to Tillis spent over $300,000 on attack ads knocking Cawthorn.
On the campaign trail, Cawthorn frequently alleged that the “RINOs” and media were out to get him, suggesting they fabricated or made up stories about him. In the end, however, his deepest wounds were largely self-inflicted—from his bizarre statements to questionable use of taxpayer funds to baffling political strategy.
After alleging in an interview that his colleagues openly partook in drugs and group sex, Cawthorn earned the rebukes of many of his GOP colleagues—some of whom even donated to his primary challengers—and was subjected to a comically stern sit-down from House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA).
In the last few months alone, Cawthorn was revealed to have possibly run afoul of insider trading rules, had his drivers’ license revoked, and faced scrutiny for his office and campaign’s exorbitant payments to friends who work for him. He was also hit with the release of photos and videos of himself wearing lingerie and dry-humping another man while naked, believed to have been leaked by former allies who had soured on him.
In the wake of that pile-up of scandals, a number of national news outlets poured thousands of words into exploring Cawthorn’s past and his psyche, visiting his hometown and talking to dozens of people who know him.
Some of those stories fortified what was a major weakness for Cawthorn: the closures and limited hours of his district offices that conduct constituent services. In the middle of the campaign, a former employee at one of these offices alleged they were dysfunctional and had more bottles of liquor than water.
Before that deluge, Cawthorn had already lost support after switching to run in a different North Carolina district, before returning hat-in-hand to run in the district he originally represented—and against the candidates who jumped in to run after he had left.
It was a remarkable turn of events for a candidate who once promised to work on real issues and prioritize the communities of the North Carolina mountains he came from.
In June 2020, Cawthorn—then just 24 years old—stunned the political world by defeating a Donald Trump-backed candidate in the district’s GOP primary. Before winning in November, he nabbed a primetime speaking slot at the Republican national convention—in which he defiantly stood up from his wheelchair—and earned the effusive praise of pundits.
That warm welcome quickly faded after Cawthorn spoke at the rally outside the White House on Jan. 6 and, after some erratic positioning, forged himself into a hardened MAGA warrior and proud enemy of liberals.
For much of his embattled first term, Cawthorn had the enthusiastic backing of Trump. But in the final stretch of the primary race, Trump was conspicuously quieter about the former star congressman, whose conduct “weirded out” the ex-president, according to Rolling Stone.
At an April rally in North Carolina, Trump praised Cawthorn but did not reiterate his endorsement of him, which he first issued in April 2021. The weekend before the primary, Trump acknowledged Cawthorn’s foibles but issued a half-hearted call to support him.
“Recently, he made some foolish mistakes, which I don’t believe he’ll make again,” Trump said in a post on Truth Social, his social media app. “Let’s give Madison a second chance!”
Ultimately, Republican voters weren’t in any mood to extend him one.
Edwards will now face Democrat Jasmine Beach-Ferrara in a race where Edwards is the heavy favorite to take the seat.