About 95% of members of the U.S. House get re-elected for subsequent terms. North Carolina Congressman Madison Cawthorn, a 26-year-old scandal-ridden Republican, became a rare exception when he lost his primary race on Tuesday.
In one of the most high-profile races in the country, Cawthorn conceded defeat to Chuck Edwards, a North Carolina Republican State senator and small businessman, late Tuesday night. As of Wednesday morning, Cawthorn trailed Edwards by at least 1.5%, or 1,319 votes.
Cawthorn’s loss did not come as a surprise to the state’s political experts and GOP operatives. In his first two years in Congress, he weathered a series of unforced errors and scandals that ultimately overcame even the power of an endorsement from former President Donald Trump. Since his election in November 2020, Cawthorn claimed, without evidence, that the Jan. 6 Capitol rioters were left-wing anti-fascist agitators rather than frenzied Trump supporters; he was cited for attempting to bring a loaded gun through airport security and charged with driving with a revoked license; he claimed he had been invited to an orgy in Washington and seen public figures doing drugs; and Politico published photos of him wearing women’s lingerie on a vacation.
Cawthorn angered his congressional colleagues with his salacious orgy comment, and the lingerie photos were a particularly damaging surprise for voters, experts say, released less than a month before the primary. Cawthorn called them “goofy vacation photos during a game on a cruise,” but the explanation didn’t pass muster in his home state. “I’ve asked a number of people about that,” says Wayne King, former deputy chief of staff to Mark Meadows, who previously represented NC-11 before becoming Trump’s White House chief of staff. “I’ve not found one male yet that said they’ve ever worn women’s lingerie on vacation. I certainly never have.”
Edwards, meanwhile, “portrays himself as a grown up,” says Chris Cooper, professor of political science at Western Carolina University. Experts describe Edwards as a modest, religious conservative who has a reputation for staying out of the spotlight— which may have made him more appealing to North Carolina voters growing irritated by Cawthorn’s tendency to grab headlines. “In some ways,” Cooper says, Edwards’ success is “precisely because he’s not the star-power candidate.”
Cawthorn’s biggest strategic blunder, Cooper says, was creating an opportunity for Edwards and other qualified Republican candidates to get into the race at all. Edwards entered the race last November after Cawthorn announced he would run in a new district that he thought would be more conservative after redistricting lines were drawn. Then, in February, Cawthorn reneged on his choice and opted to run again in his current district after all, and had to face Edwards.
Ultimately, experts say, it wasn’t just the district flip-flopping, misdemeanors, or lewd acts caught on camera that cost Cawthorn his seat. It was all of those things playing out against the backdrop of Cawthorn’s lack of policy successes and constituent services in Congress.
After his 2020 election, Cawthorn boasted that he had big legislative plans to work across the aisle, bring down healthcare costs, and improve rural broadband. But shortly after he took office, he wrote a memo to Republican colleagues—which TIME obtained—saying he had built his congressional staff around “comms rather than legislation.” In other words, Cawthorn wanted to be a megaphone for the right, not a policymaker for it.
Zero of the 37 bills he introduced in the 117th Congress passed the House; only six of the 342 bills he co-sponsored became law. His constituents found him hard to reach; some of his district offices were often closed, requiring voters in his sprawling, mountainous district to travel far to get help. “This is not an urban area. It’s not easy to hop on a train and get across town,” says Cooper. “We’re talking hours, plural, to get to an office for many of his constituents. That has been a real black eye on his constituency service operation.”
And despite his stated staffing priorities, Cawthorn also lacked a strong communications strategy. One example was his response to an August 2021 flood that killed several people, injured others, and left thousands of people in Western North Carolina without power. “Cawthorn’s first public comments on the matter were around 24 hours after the Pigeon River reached initial flood levels,” Western North Carolina native Callie Pruett wrote in an op-ed in the North Carolina Mountaineer that ran with a headline calling Cawthorn’s silence an “unforgivable dereliction of duty.”
By the end of his brief tenure in Washington, Cawthorn had thoroughly alienated even members of his own party. When asked ahead of the primary if there were any local GOP leaders or Republican strategists who liked Cawthorn and hoped to see him re-elected, several state experts and politicians shared a similar answer: “I can’t think of anybody,” King said, “except the people that he’s paying.”
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