Rep Madison Cawthorn was defeated in Tuesday’s Republican primary by Chuck Edwards, a member of the North Carolina state senate, in a surprising loss during a busy night of primary elections. Mr Cawthorn conceded that he lost the race in a call to Chuck Edwards, according to his campaign. The Associated Press called the race shortly after 11pm.
The result is a devastating blow to a prominent Republican who had the backing of Donald Trump as well as many grassroots figures in the GOP, and a sign that Mr Trump’s ability to pick a winning candidate is not absolute.
Mr Cawthorn watched his defeat roll in from his campaign headquarters in his small hometown of Hendersonville, North Carolina. The scene was sparsely attended, with media practically outnumbering supporters. By the time his opponent declared victory, Mr Cawthorn’s event was more populated by police officers than supporters, and campaign staffers quickly asked police to force journalists off the property entirely.
“No idea” what happened tonight, one Cawthorn staffer who did not give his name told The Independent as the last stragglers left.
He confirmed that Mr Cawthorn would not give formal remarks as the night concluded, offering only: “Maybe something tomorrow”.
“It is what it is,” the staffer added as the parking lot was cleared by police.
Before conceding, Mr Cawthorn hit out at leaders of the Republican party. “You know what? I’ll tell you, there has been a coordinated strike by really, kind of, the old establishment wing of our party. It’s a loser’s mentality.”
The outgoing congressman gave a final nod to Mr Trump on his way out of his watch party.
”No matter what you are facing, when Donald Trump has your back, he has your back until the end,” Mr Cawthorn told supporters.
Mr Cawthorn’s defeat was the perfect foil for the victory of Ted Budd, the Trump-endorsed GOP candidate for US Senate in the state, who won his own primary handily. The GOP Senate primary ended just minutes after polls closed when it became clear that Mr Budd would win by double-digits over Pat McCrory, the state’s prominent former governor.
Mr Edwards, meanwhile, watched results arrive from his watch party at a hotel nearby in Hendersonville’s outskirts. The victory was in no small part due to the actions of his opponent, and the mood at his headquarters was downright exuberant by the end of the evening.
The state senator addressed his supporters around 10 pm, and gaggled with reporters soon after. He confirmed in his remarks that Mr Cawthorn had called him, conceded, and offered his full support for the November general election.
“Congressman Cawthorn was very polite, very congenial, offered his support in absolutely any way to help me defeat the Democrat,” said Mr Edwards. He will face Democratic candidate Jasmine Beach-Ferrara in November.
Mr Cawthorn’s campaign was opposed by the state’s soon-to-be-senior US senator, Thom Tillis, as well as a super PAC that leaked sexually explicit images of him in an attempt to discredit his image.
It’s unclear exactly how much effect those leaks had on the primary, but more than a few Edwards supporters could be heard grumbling about them at his event and the candidate himself, while staying away from the controversy, noted how important it was for voters to have someone with a “proven track record” and “experience” in the position.
“I think the voters in the mountains recognised that we needed someone with a proven track record in Washington DC,” he told reporters, taking an apparent shot at Mr Cawthorn’s record. “I’ve had the opportunity to show them that track record” in the state senate, he added.
Supporters of his campaign added to The Independent that Mr Edwards’ conservative track record in the state Senate was attractive, while many seemed eager to avoid mentioning the controversial incumbent.
“We voted for Madison and supported him financially (in 2020),” Melody Haltmann said in an interview. “But we also supported Chuck when he was in the state House.”
Of Mr Edwards’ style, she added in an obvious contrast to Mr Cawthorn: “He’s not flamboyant. He went there and got the job done. And along the jump, it took a lot of patience, and a lot of trips back [that] a lot of people weren’t willing to do.”
Her husband Bob pointed to Mr Cawthorn’s personal issues more directly, calling them a “subterranian” problem for the candidate that underscored his entire campaign.
“The fact that Madison unfortunately had a bomb marriage, that didn’t look very mature,” said Mr Haltmann, adding that the personal stories “screwed” the young candidate.
Mr Tillis endorsed Mr Edwards’ candidacy but did not show up in person to watch the results; among those state officials who were present was North Carolina’s newly-reelected state legislator Jake Johnson, like Mr Cawthorn a youngster in the party at just 19, who joked with another Edwards supporter that the “Fire Madison” PAC responsible for leaking the salacious images had released “one video too many”.
“Who knows what other videos are out there,” quipped an Edwards supporter to him in response.
Scandals plagued Mr Cawthorn’s campaign throughout 2022. He was accused of driving on a revoked license and cited for carrying a gun into an airport, and that doesn’t even begin to touch on his newly-erupted feud with Republican leadership. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy painted him as a liar after Mr Cawthorn alleged that his colleagues were doing cocaine and inviting him to orgies, and he was unable to secure the endorsement of a single member of North Carolina’s congressional delegation.
Tuesday’s result is a sign that Donald Trump’s endorsement is not enough to carry a candidate with significant baggage past the finish line in every race. The former president urged his followers to “give Madison a second chance” in a semi-endorsement reissued on Monday ahead of the primary, but it was not enough to rally Mr Cawthorn’s supporters to the polls.