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Scandal-plagued North Carolina U.S. Rep. Madison Cawthorn goes down to primary defeat

Republican U.S. Rep. Ted Budd will face Democrat Cheri Beasley in key fall U.S. Senate race

North CarolinaRALEIGH (CFP) – Republican voters in Western North Carolina brought the political career of scandal-plagued U.S. Rep. Madison Cawthorn crashing down in Tuesday’s primary, while voters statewide set up a fall U.S. Senate contest between Republican U.S. Rep. Ted Budd and Democrat Cheri Beasley.

budd beasley

North Carolina U.S. Senate nominees Ted Budd and Cheri Beasley

Budd, endorsed by Donald Trump, took 59% to win the GOP primary, ahead of former governor Pat McCrory at 24% and former U.S. Rep. Mark Walker at 9%.

In November, he’ll face Beasley, the former chief justice of the state Supreme Court who easily won her party’s nomination.

North Carolina is considered one of the Democrats’ prime pick-up opportunities in the fall, which will make the likely race between Budd and Beasley a high-decibel, high-spending affair that gets outsized national attention.

In the state’s 11th U.S. House district, which takes in 15 counties in the western end of the state, Cawthorn – elected to office in 2020 at just 25 – was defeated by State Senator Chuck Edwards of Hendersonville, who had the backing of state GOP leaders.

Edwards took 34% to 32% for Cawthorn, who conceded the race trailing by about 1,500 votes.

Cawthorn — once seen as a rising star in the MAGA wing of the GOP — has been enmeshed in a bevy of controversy and questionable behavior: He was caught twice trying to take a gun through airport security, cited twice for driving with a revoked license, and infuriated colleagues by musing in a podcast that he had been invited to orgies and witnessed cocaine use.

He also raised eyebrows by dismissing of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy as a “thug” and has been featured in a photo wearing women’s lingerie and in a video naked in bed with a male friend.

He also made a political blunder by abandoning the 11th District to run in a neighboring district, then reversing course after a state court drew a new map that obliterated his new district.

Trump endorsed Cawthorn and urged voters on the eve of the primary to give him another chance, though the former president conceded Cawthorn had made “some foolish mistakes.”

In other primary contests, American Idol finalist Clay Aiken lost in his second run for the U.S. House, while former Republican U.S. Rep. Renee Ellmers’s comeback bid was thwarted by Bo Hines, a 26-year-old political newcomer and former college football star who appears on his way to riding a Trump endorsement to Washington.

Here is a look at other races of note on Tuesday’s ballot:

1st District: Democratic State Senator Don Davis won his party’s nomination for this open seat over former State Senator Erica Smith, who got out of the U.S. Senate race to run here instead. He will face Republican Sandy Smith, a farmer and businesswoman from Nash County, who had a narrow win in the GOP primary.

4th District: Democratic State Senator Valerie Foushee from Chapel Hill cruised to an easy primary win over Nida Allam, the first Muslim woman to win political office in North Carolina, and Aiken. She will favored in the fall in this heavily Democratic district.

6th District: Incumbent Democratic U.S. Rep. Kathy Manning is trying to hang on to this seat, which became more Republican under the final court-drawn map. She will face Republican Christian Castelli, a businessman and former U.S. Army Special Forces officer from Randolph County.

13th District: Armed with Trump’s endorsement, Hines, a 26-year-old political newcomer and former college football star who did not live in the district before running here, avoided a runoff in this newly configured, Republican-leaning district, centered in suburban Raleigh. Among the candidates he defeated was Ellmers, who was trying to make a comeback after losing a Republican primary for her seat in 2016.

14th District: The contest in this newly configured swing district in metro will be between Democratic State Senator Jeff Jackson, who exited the U.S. Senate race to run here and Pat Harrington, a Green Beret and firearms dealer.

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Political Tornado: Can North Carolina U.S. Rep. Madison Cawthorn survive his penchant for controversy?

Decision to switch districts, comments about cocaine use and orgies have put his political future in jeopardy

♦By Rich Shumate, editor

North CarolinaASHEVILLE (CFP) — When Madison Cawthorn came out of nowhere to win a North Carolina U.S. House seat in 2020 at the tender age of 25, he was seen as a handsome, fresh-faced rising star in the Republican firmament, an ardent partisan of Donald Trump with a compelling personal story of overcoming hardship.


U.S. Rep. Madison Cawthorn, R-North Carolina

Now, less than two years later, a series of missteps and controversies has alienated GOP colleagues in the House, drawn active opposition to his re-election from top state Republicans, and landed him in a crowded primary where he’s fighting for his political life.

So, can Cawthorn regroup, retool and survive, or will his political career crash ignominiously after barely taking flight?

To be sure, Cawthorn has significant assets –- strong name recognition, a fervent following among the MAGA base, and a reputation as a passionate foe of liberalism in all of its forms. He has raised $2.9 million, nearly three times as much as any of his primary opponents and a massive haul for a district without expensive media markets.

Most importantly, he has been endorsed by Trump, who invited him to speak at an April 9 rally in Selma even as House Republican colleagues were setting their hair on fire over Cawthorn’s ill-considered podcast musings about being invited to orgies and witnessing cocaine use.

That controversy – coming on the heels of Cawthorn’s dismissal of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy as a “thug” and news that he was arrested for driving on a revoked license – prompted both of North Carolina’s U.S. senators and the two top Republicans in the legislature to publicly support one of Cawthorn’s primary opponents, State Senator Chuck Edwards from Hendersonville.

Cawthorn was also on the receiving end of a talking to from House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy, who bluntly told reporters that Cawthorn wasn’t telling the truth and had lost his trust.

Cawthorn has shown little sign of being chastened by the experience, issuing a statement afterward saying he “will not back down to the mob” and adding: “My comments on a recent podcast appearance calling out corruption have been used by the left and the media to disparage my Republican colleagues and falsely insinuate their involvement in illicit activities.”

But perhaps Cawthorn’s most consequential political blunder was his decision to abandon the 11th District in Western North Carolina, where he was elected in 2020, to run for re-election instead in a new district closer to Charlotte, created by Republican legislators as part of a map gerrymandered to the party’s advantage.

The state Supreme Court threw out that map and adopted a new one that obliterated Cawthorn’s new district, prompting him to return to the 11th. But by that time, seven Republicans had already entered the race, and all of them decided to stay.

Had he not initially forsaken the district, Cawthorn would probably have had an easy road through the primary and been the favorite in November in a conservative, pro-Trump district. Now, he faces a dogfight in which the overriding issue will be him – his judgment, his temperament, and his behavior.

However, what may rescue Cawthorn in the end is North Carolina’s unique primary system, which only requires a candidate to get 30% of the vote to avoid a runoff. So his name recognition and MAGA support could be enough to triumph in an eight-candidate field.

Edwards has consolidated support from the party establishment.  But he’s lagged in fundraising behind another competitor, Bruce O’Connell, a hotel owner from Haywood County who drew national attention for fighting the Biden administration’s COVID-19 restrictions.

Also in the race in Michelle Woodhouse, the Republican party chair for the 11th District, who bills herself as the “America First” candidate in the race and was endorsed by Cawthorn as his replacement when he moved to the different district.

If the anti-Cawthorn vote divides between these contenders, he’s likely to finish first and will win if he can clear 30%.

Waiting in the wings for whoever survives is Democratic Buncombe County Commissioner Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, a pastor and LGBTQ activist who has raised $1.2 million so far for the race.

This is not district that has been in play in recent years, although a Democrat held it as recently as 2013. But Cawthorn’s presence in the race has clearly helped Beach-Ferrara’s fundraising, and she’ll raise even more if he survives the primary.

This plays into the argument by Cawthorn’s primary opponents that, given his flaws, he’s vulnerable to a Democrat in a way they are not. Whether that argument gains traction may depend on whether the tornado of controversy surrounding Madison Cawthorn dissipates — or continues to churn.

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