In August, as Tropical Storm Fred unleashed record flooding across his western North Carolina district, 26-year-old freshman Rep. Madison Cawthorn was doing what he does best: posting.
Cawthorn’s presence on the MAGA-iest corners of social media is so prolific that it wasn’t until a few days after the storm—after he had criticized President Joe Biden over the withdrawal from Afghanistan, called the Democratic governor of his state a “tyrant,” warned his followers about “authoritarian school boards,” and crowed that he would “rather be hated by the mainstream media and the D.C. swamp if that means I’m loved by the patriotic Americans across the country”—that Cawthorn began to communicate about the flooding and mudslides.
And when Cawthorn finally did get around to tweeting about the storm and its damage, he chose to retweet some general government guidance about cleanup and to post pictures of himself handing out meals to first responders and speaking with constituents.
Faced with criticism that he and his office were slow to respond to the natural disaster, Cawthorn bristled. He wrote in an op-ed that “partisan attacks during moments of life and death have no place in our political discourse.” And then three days later, after 13 U.S. soldiers were killed in Afghanistan, he tweeted that Biden was a “mentally unstable individual” and urged his Cabinet to remove him.
It’s these sorts of antics—deeply popular with adoring Trump fans and deeply unproductive for a legislator—that have produced four Republican challengers against Cawthorn. And it’s why Eric Batchelor, a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel and current sheriff’s deputy, seems to have based his campaign on a simple message.
“Being a representative is about being a representative to this district,” Batchelor said in an interview with The Daily Beast. “It’s not about flying around this country raising national campaign dollars and searching for the next photo op. It’s about being here in this district.”
The three other Republicans running to unseat Cawthorn in North Carolina’s 11th District—Rod Honeycutt, Wendy Nevarez, and Bruce O’Connell—have all entered the race within the last two months. And they all seem to be arguing that residents of western North Carolina deserve a more experienced, more serious representative who will not only show up but, more importantly, not embarrass their constituents in the process.
“The job of being a congressman requires politicking and governing. Politicking is mostly theater, governing is mostly work. Madison is all politicking and no governing,” says a section of O’Connell’s website that simply reads, “What’s wrong with Madison Cawthorn?”
Honeycutt, a genial retired Army colonel, put it only a little more gently, saying “maturity, leadership, knowledge, and experience” is currently missing from the district.
“I’ll be more front-door porch screen, back-door porch screen, than TV or computer screen,” he said.
For some of the field, the case against Cawthorn extends to riskier turf for a GOP primary—his embrace of Donald Trump’s election fraud conspiracies and his speech to the crowd outside the White House on Jan. 6, when he told them the Constitution was being “violated.”
Nevarez, a U.S. Navy veteran, said the Capitol riot was a “hard thing to watch” and was motivated to run against Cawthorn afterward. “Those words mattered,” she said.
Instead of taking a step back and recalibrating his rhetoric, Cawthorn has only ramped things up. In August, he appeared to tell a constituent that another Jan. 6-style, pro-Trump demonstration at the Capitol might be in the works, and he warned of more “bloodshed” if elections continued to be “rigged.” Those kinds of statements have added fuel to the backlash, and Batchelor claimed that much is apparent on the campaign trail.
“There are a lot of people who voted for him because they were voting for the Republican, they were voting for who they saw as the best option, but who are not happy with him now,” Batchelor said.
But in today’s Republican Party, there might not be much space for challengers running against a MAGA hero’s divisive politics and national focus. That’s because Cawthorn might be performing the most important kind of constituent service there is: owning the libs.
Republicans who know this terrain say the district is not always forgiving to incumbents, but they believe Cawthorn will be tough to beat in a GOP primary. Few have forgotten how he emerged from political obscurity to win the primary in 2020, defeating a Trump-endorsed candidate handily.
Since then, Cawthorn’s constant partisan tweeting and media hits have only elevated his profile and allowed him to cultivate a national network of small-dollar donors. It’s paid off spectacularly: in the first six months of 2021, he raised $1.8 million, more than all but a handful of lawmakers.
That elevated profile means Cawthorn does have a real target on his back, said Carl Mumpower, a former chairman of the GOP in Asheville, the district’s biggest city. “The pile-on-Cawthorn game is in full swing,” he said.
But Mumpower suggested that Cawthorn’s strategy to hold the seat may be a good one, and argued the primary is “his to lose.”
“He’s passionate, and talking to his crowd at home is not high on his list or even necessary,” said Mumpower, who did not vote for Cawthorn in the 2020 GOP primary but believes he’s gotten unfair treatment from the local press and GOP critics.
“Photo ops at a washed-out campground, I know some people think that’s leadership, but that’s quite often propaganda,” he said. “He’s got other things he’s putting his mind to.”
One GOP operative told The Daily Beast that Trump, who won the district by 12 points in 2020, still polls well there, and Cawthorn has effectively cultivated his support base. His challengers, the operative said, “don’t have a real chance if Cawthorn stays on his current track and doesn’t make any major, major mistakes from a constituent service standpoint.”
If Cawthorn simply stays on his current track, however, it’s a guarantee he will get headlines—many of them bad.
Aside from his political rhetoric, Cawthorn’s attention-grabbing personal behavior has been a source of heartburn for many in Beltway GOP circles, and privately, some would not be heartbroken to see him replaced by another Republican.
Shortly after being sworn in, for instance, Cawthorn oddly proclaimed to his GOP colleagues that he had “built my staff around comms rather than legislation,” according to TIME. In February, he attempted to board a plane with a Glock handgun, which was confiscated. And in July, he nearly got in a physical altercation with 74-year-old Rep. David McKinley (R-WV) over a bill. After McKinley filed an ethics complaint, Cawthorn sent him an error-ridden apology note that leaked and went viral on social media.
That’s all on top of a steady stream of troubling reporting about Cawthorn’s past—including claims from multiple women that he sexually harassed them while he was a student in college. (Cawthorn dropped out of the faith-based Patrick Henry College after a semester in which he mostly received D’s.)
For now, Cawthorn’s challengers are largely straying from talking about his personal conduct, preferring to focus on missed votes, photo ops, and his rhetoric around the 2020 election. Batchelor, for instance, said he wanted to stay away from personal attacks and that his “professional demeanor speaks for itself.”
Honeycutt said he did not want to “badmouth” Cawthorn and was reluctant to even discuss a specific instance where he felt the incumbent had clearly failed. “The only experience he’s had is what he’s had in this seat, and comparing myself to him—I’ve got 37 years of experience at a strategic level, an operational level,” Honeycutt said. “I think there’s a big difference.”
Cawthorn has not yet hit back directly at his GOP challengers. His campaign did not respond to a request for comment from The Daily Beast about their charges against him.
But the risks of Cawthorn’s approach have been clear to friendly Republicans. Karl Rove, the prominent GOP strategist, recently warned the congressman that his thirst for national media and out-of-state fundraising trips could cost him.
“Don’t get too far over into campaigning nationwide,” Rove said he told Cawthorn, in an interview with the Smoky Mountain News. “Don’t neglect the people back home.”
Republicans say the congressman will have to take his challengers seriously, even if he is solidly favored. Fresh fundraising reports will come out soon, but as of July, Cawthorn had spent most of the $1.8 million he raised, according to the Asheville Citizen-Times.
But Cawthorn’s ability to raise such sums to begin with has Republicans convinced that he will easily do so going forward. His ability to gin up outrage donations may also work against his GOP challengers, but in a different way: Democratic donors who loathe Cawthorn are propelling one candidate, Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, who raised over $600,000 since getting in the race, as of July.
Most of the GOP challenger field has not been in the race long enough to post fundraising totals, and they stress that they do not anticipate outraising Cawthorn—or even coming close.
The Republican challengers have a smaller constituency to appeal to—some smaller than others. Two candidates, Batchelor and Nevarez, would not say if they had voted for Trump in 2016 and 2020, and along with Honeycutt, they support creating an independent commission to investigate the Jan. 6 attack.
Those kinds of Republicans have become the target of Trump’s ire and earned the hatred of his base. If such a candidate breaks through and forces a real race against Cawthorn, it could spark a high-profile test of Trump’s enduring grip on the GOP.
Batchelor said he hoped his candidacy might help prove that there is an alternative to the Trump-era GOP that is so embodied by figures like Cawthorn. The challenge, he said, is to convince those Republicans that “there is more to this party than one personality.”
“Maybe I’m wrong,” said Batchelor, “but a lot of people are maybe starting to accept the fact that the Republican Party is not just about one person again.”