RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — First-term U.S. Rep. Madison Cawthorn lost his Republican primary race Tuesday to state Sen. Chuck Edwards, after the pro-Donald Trump firebrand's personal and political blunders translated into voter unhappiness.
Cawthorn called Edwards to concede the 11th Congressional District primary to Edwards, Cawthorn campaign spokesperson Luke Ball told The Associated Press. The AP later called the race for Edwards over Cawthorn and six other Republican candidates.
"Against all odds, we fought hard to win this election and provide clear conservative leadership for the mountains,” Edwards said in a news release. “Now, we will harness this energy, come together as a party, and keep this seat in Republican hands in November.”
Cawthorn had vaulted to national prominence after winning the mountain-area seat in 2020 at age 25.
Edwards is fast-food franchise owner who advances to the November election against Democrat Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, who won Tuesday’s six-candidate Democratic primary.
U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis, who endorsed Edwards, said Cawthorn was an embarrassment to his constituents.
“Republicans chose Chuck Edwards tonight because he is the embodiment of mountain values who will fight for them every single day in Congress with honor and integrity,” Tillis said in a news release.
Cawthorn faced negative publicity for speeding and gun violations, as well as for calling Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy a “thug.” He also infuriated fellow Republicans in Congress when he alleged on a podcast that he had been invited to an orgy in Washington.
And his initial decision to run for reelection elsewhere — only to switch back to the 11th District — didn’t sit well with many locals.
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, Cawthorn 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!”
Speaking to reporters earlier Tuesday evening at his campaign headquarters in Hendersonville with the result still uncertain, Cawthorn said Trump’s support had been solid.
“I’ve found that most people in politics, if it’s not politically expedient to them, they’ll turn their back on you in a heartbeat,” he said. “But no matter what you are facing, when Donald Trump has your back, he has your back to the end.”
Cawthorn’s 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.
Edwards, 61, operates McDonald’s franchises in western North Carolina. He joined the state Senate in 2016 and moved up the seniority ladder in the chamber, taking on chairmanships and more substantive measures in recent years involving small businesses, guns and immigration.
He championed legislation, vetoed by Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, that would have required all county sheriffs to assist federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement by holding inmates it believes are in the country unlawfully.
Gary D. Robertson, The Associated Press