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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, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor
ASHEVILLE (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.
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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Hot or not, in or out: Our forecast of 2022’s most interesting Southern political races
Trump’s sway will be key metric in outcome of midterm elections across region
♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor
(CFP) — 2022 has dawned, and with it a mid-term election year in which most Southern states will decide who gets to be their governor and congressional races across the region will play a key role in deciding which party controls Congress.
Of the eight Southern states with open races for governor this year, seven will feature incumbents seeking re-election, with the only open race in Arkansas, where former Donald Trump spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders appears on her way to victory.
Nine U.S. Senate seats will be up, with open races in Alabama and North Carolina and Georgia Democratic U.S. Senator Raphael Warnock battling for a full term after winning a special election runoff in 2020.
Here is a look at some of the hottest races, and likely biggest political stories, of the upcoming year.
The redrawing of new U.S. House maps after reapportionment has set up two Southern primary contests, one in each party, where incumbents will need to defeat a current colleague to stay in Congress.
In Georgia, Republican mapmakers have pitted Democratic U.S. Reps. Lucy McBath and Carolyn Bourdeaux against each other in Atlanta’s suburbs. McBath’s existing district in the northwest suburbs became too Republican for her to survive; Bourdeaux’s in the northeast suburbs actually became more Democratic with the addition of areas that had been in McBath’s orbit.
The two women — who campaigned with each other in 2018 and 2020 and differ little politically — will face off in what is likely to be an expensive primary. McBath has a stronger national profile and fundraising operation, but the district now centers on Gwinnett County, which Bourdeaux currently represents.
One caveat is that voting rights groups are suing the block the new map, which, if successful, could provide a wrinkle ahead of the March filing deadline.
In West Virginia, the loss of one of the state’s three U.S. House seats sets up a primary contest between Republican U.S. Reps. David McKinley and Alex Mooney for a new district that includes the northern half of the state.
However, this race will have more of an ideological flavor than the primary in Georgia. Mooney, a former Washington lobbyist who moved to the state in 2014 from Maryland to run for Congress, is a member of the ultra-conservative, anti-establishment Freedom Caucus. McKinley, a seventh-generation West Virginian and former state party chair, is more aligned with the Republican Party’s establishment wing.
Expect to hear a great deal in this race about McKinley’s vote in favor of establishing a bipartisan commission to investigation the January 6th attack on the U.S. Capitol, which Mooney opposed.
The Power of Trump
The former president has already been active in offering endorsements and pursuing revenge, particularly against Georgia Governor Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger for refusing to indulge his claims of widespread fraud in the state’s 2020 vote.
Trump recruited former U.S. Senator David Perdue to run against Kemp, setting off what is likely to be a bare-knuckled brawl in the Republican primary ahead of a stiff challenge from Democrat Stacey Abrams. He also endorsed U.S. Rep. Jody Hice’s bid to unseat Raffensperger.
And in one of the strangest early developments of the 2020 campaign, Trump also reportedly encouraged his former ambassador to Slovenia, Lindy Blanchard, to drop out of the U.S. Senate race to run instead against the very popular Alabama Governor Kay Ivey, in a fit of pique over cancellation of a July 4th Trump rally (a decision Ivey did not actually make.)
Trump has also waded into the attorney general’s race in Texas with an endorsement of incumbent Ken Paxton, who has drawn a gaggle of primary challengers (including Bush family scion George P. Bush and stalwart pro-Trump U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert) after a criminal indictment and FBI bribery investigation.
Taking down Ivey would seem a long shot at this point; Kemp is holding his own against Perdue in early polls; and Paxton race seems likely to be headed to an unpredictable runoff in March. So it remains to be seen whether the Trump endorsement machine will produce results in 2022.
Trump has also endorsed in three U.S. Senate races. In Georgia, his nod put Herschel Walker on a glide path to the Republican nomination, but his chosen candidates in Alabama (U.S. Rep. Mo Brooks) and North Carolina (U.S. Rep. Ted Budd) are facing tough primary battles against more establishment candidates.
Adding to the MAGA Squad
Trump’s election has led to the rise of a core group of MAGA-philes in the House – social media savvy, outspoken, and willing to pounce on fellow Republicans who display the slightest scrap of bipartisanship. Among this group are Georgia’s Marjorie Taylor Greene, Florida’s Matt Gaetz, the aforementioned Gohmert and Brooks, and North Carolina’s Madison Cawthorn.
In 2022, they are hoping to add to their numbers by offering endorsements and fundraising help to like-minded candidates across the South and around the country, which will put them in position to be power brokers if Republicans take control of the House (a prospect likely to give House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy heartburn.)
Some of these candidates are little known and will face tough climbs against incumbent Republicans. But it is worth noting that both Greene and Cawthorn followed this same playbook successfully in 2020, going from unknowns to the halls of Congress with lightning speed.
Southern Black Woman in the U.S. Senate?
No black woman has ever been elected to represent a Southern state in the Senate. This year, Democrats are poised to pick two black women as their Senate nominees – U.S. Rep. Val Demings in Florida and Cheri Beasley in North Carolina.
Demings, the former police chief of Orlando who served on the first House impeachment committee that investigated Trump, faces an uphill climb against Republican U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, particularly with his strong core of support among Hispanic voters in South Florida. But with her national profile, she has been posting strong fundraising numbers that could make the race competitive.
Beasley, the former chief justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court, may have better prospects in running for an open seat in a race where Republicans are slogging through a multi-candidate race in which Trump has intervened in favor of Budd.
A victory by either in November will make history.
Palmetto State “RINOs”
The most serious insult that can be hurled in Republican politics these days is to call someone a RINO – a Republican in Name Only.
Two incumbent U.S. House members in South Carolina have been branded with the RINO label by their critics – Nancy Mace in the Lowcountry and Tom Rice in the Pee Dee – and are each facing multiple challengers in their respective Republican primaries.
Mace was among the few Republican House members to offer criticism of Trump after the January 6th Capitol attack, although she did not vote to impeach him. Rice did, which got him censured by the state’s Republican Party, and he compounded his sin among the MAGA fervency by supporting the bipartisan commission to investigate the attacks.
As a result, Mace has four GOP challengers; Rice has 12. Trump has encouraged their challengers but has yet to announce a favorite. His blessing may be good enough to earn a runoff slot against the incumbent.
Thinking Outside The Box
After Warnock won a January special U.S. Senate election runoff in Georgia, he immediately become the Republicans’ primary 2022 target. Yet, no sitting U.S. House member ventured to take him on, nor did the three Republicans who ran against him in 2020.
Enter Herschel Walker, University of Georgia football hero and NFL standout. Though he carries significant personal baggage and has not a whiff of political experience, he does have the one accessory every Republican candidate wants in 2022 – Trump’s blessing.
Trump’s endorsement didn’t clear the primary field, but it did get Republican Senate leaders in Washgington behind Walker’s candidacy – taking a significant leap of faith in a race against a charismatic Democrat with Obama-level political skills.
Is this a gamble that will pay off or blow up? The answer may decide control of the Senate.
Beto O’Crist for Governor
The good people of Texas told Beto O’Rourke that they didn’t want him to be their senator in 2018, even after he spent $80 million trying to persuade them otherwise. The good people of Iowa and New Hampshire told him they didn’t want him to be their president in 2020, without nearly as much money going down the drain.
But not willing to take no and no for an answer, O’Rourke is back again, running this time for governor against incumbent Republican Greg Abbott. Only this time, he’s running in the gun-loving Lone Star State after telling a Democratic presidential debate audience that he was in favor of confiscating their assault weapons.
But lest you think Beto is the region’s most resolute embracer of questionable causes, he pales in comparison to Florida’s well-tanned political chameleon Charlie Crist, who is running for governor again this year after losing two statewide races in the past eight years and metamorphosing from a conservative Republican into an independent and then into a liberal Democrat.
Which begs the question: What part of “no” don’t you understand?
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U.S. House votes to strip Georgia U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of committee assignments
Greene expresses regret for embracing conspiracy theories but does not address past support for violence against Democratic colleagues
♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor
WASHINGTON (CFP) — On a largely party-line vote, the U.S. House Thursday took the unprecedented step of removing Georgia Republican U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene from her committee assignments after GOP leaders refused to do so in the wake of Greene’s past online support for conspiracy theories and violence against Democrats.
Eleven Republicans joined Democrats in support of the resolution, including three GOP members from South Florida, Carlos Giménez, Mario Diaz-Balart, and Maria Elvira Salazar.
Family members of victims of the deadly 2018 high school shooting in Parkland, Florida — which Greene has in the past questioned as a hoax — lobbied members to take action against Greene.
The move means that while Greene will remain a voting member of Congress, she won’t be able to participate in any of the committee work that is a key part of a member’s job.
The vote came after Greene took the floor to express regret about her past embrace of QAnon and conspiracy theories about school shootings and the 9/11 terror attacks, during which she also blamed the news media for mischaracterizing her views and lamented “cancel culture.”
“I think it’s important for all of us to remember that none of us is perfect,” she said, adding that if Democrats “want to condemn me and crucify me in the public square for words that I said and I regret a few years ago, then I think we’re in a real big problem.’
In her remarks, Greene did not address her past expressions of support for violence against Democrats, including liking a Facebook post in 2019 that called for putting “a bullet in the head” of Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Those threats were front and center in House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer’s impassioned argument for the resolution, during which he brandished a campaign poster showing Greene carrying a AR-15 rifle next to pictures of three Democratic women known as “The Squad,” over a caption reading “Squad’s Worst Nightmare.”
“I ask my colleagues to look at that image and tell me what message you think it sends,” he said. “These three faces are real people.”
The three members of The Squad are Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan. In 2019, Greene posted a video arguing that Omar and Tlaib could not serve in Congress because they are Muslim.
Greene — calling herself a “very regular person” and wearing a mask emblazoned with the phrase “Free Speech” — explained that she became interested in the QAnon conspiracy in 2018 due to her frustration about events in Washington, including “Russian collusion,” which she dismissed as a false conspiracy theory.
“I was allowed to believe things that weren’t true, and I would ask questions about them and talk about them, and that is absolutely what I regret because if it weren’t for the Facebook posts and comments that I liked in 2018, I wouldn’t be standing here today and you couldn’t point a finger and accuse me of anything wrong,” she said.
She also noted that she did not advance QAnon during her campaign for the House last year or since she was elected to represent Georgia’s 14th District, which covers the northwestern corner of the state.
Despite previous expressions of support for conspiracy theories holding that mass school shootings were staged and expressing skepticism about official accounts of the 9/11 attacks, she said she now believes that “school shootings are absolutely real” and that “9/11 absolutely happened.”
However, she also said the news media is “just as guilty as QAnon in presenting truth and lies.”
“You only know me by how Media Matters, CNN, MSNBC and the rest of the mainstream media is portraying me,” she said. “Big media companies can take teeny, tiny pieces of words that I’ve said, that you have said, any of us, and can portray us as someone that we’re not, and that is wrong.”
In her remarks Thursday, Greene did not address one of the more outlandish conspiracy theories that she supported in 2018, which posited that wildfires in California may have been ignited by lasers from outer space by a cabal that included a Jewish-owned bank.
The fuse leading to Thursday’s vote was lit when Republican leaders appointed Greene to the budget and education committees, with the latter appointment triggering particular outrage because of her past comments about school shootings.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy has condemned Greene’s earlier comments but declined to strip her of her committee assignments, prompting Democrats to take action, which McCarthy dismissed as a “partisan power grab.”
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7 new Southern U.S House Democrats who ousted Republicans support Nancy Pelosi for speaker
Cunningham of South Carolina and Spanberger of Virginia keep vow to oppose Pelosi; North Carolina’s 9th District remains vacant
♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com
WASHINGTON (CFP) — Seven Southern Democratic U.S. House freshmen who ousted GOP incumbents in November supported Nancy Pelosi’s bid to reclaim the gavel as speaker of the U.S. House — handing Republicans an issue to use against them in 2020.
Colin Allred and Lizzie Pannill Fletcher of Texas, Kendra Horn of Oklahoma, Lucy McBath of Georgia, Elaine Luria and Jennifer Wexton of Virginia, and Debbie Mucarsel-Powell of Florida all supported Pelosi in the January 3 vote.
Two other freshmen Democrats who had vowed during their campaign that they would not support Pelosi — Joe Cunningham of South Carolina and Abigail Spanberger of Virginia — kept that promise, voting instead for Cheri Bustos of Illinois.
And despite signing a letter in November calling for new leadership in the House, Filemon Vela of Texas switched course to vote for Pelosi.
Meanwhile, as the new Congress convened in Washington with 29 new Southern members, one seat sat empty — the representative from North Carolina’s 9th District, where state elections officials have refused to certify Republican Mark Harris’s narrow win over Democrat Dan McCready amid allegations of absentee ballot fraud.
In the vote for speaker, just three Southern Democratic members did not support Pelosi — Cunningham and Spanberger, who voted for Bustos, and Jim Cooper of Tennessee, who voted present.
Cooper, who has been in Congress since 1983, had been a long-time opponent of Pelosi’s speakership, having voted against her five times previously.
After the November election, a group of 16 Democratic members, including Cooper, Cunningham and Vela, signed a letter calling for “new leadership” in the Democratic caucus.
Vela changed course after Pelosi agreed to support term limits for the House Democratic leadership, which will limit her speakership to no more than four years.
Pelosi needed a majority of the 430 votes cast for speaker. In the end, she got 220 votes, four more than necessary.
Of the seven Southern Democrats who ousted Republicans and voted for Pelosi, McBath, Horn and Luria represent districts carried by President Donald Trump in 2016, while Allred and Fletcher represent districts he lost by less than 2 points.
Hillary Clinton carried Murcasel-Powell’s district in South Florida by 16 points and Wexton’s district in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C. by 10 points.
Three other Southern Democratic newcomers who won open seats in November also supported Pelosi — Veronica Escobar and Sylvia Garcia of Texas, and Donna Shalala of Florida. All three represent districts Clinton carried handily.
Among Southern Republicans, only three did not support their candidate for speaker, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California.
Thomas Massie of Kentucky and Jody Hice of Georgia supported Jim Jordan of Ohio, one of the founders of the House Freedom Caucus, a grouping of the most conservative Republican members.
Walter Jones of North Carolina did not vote. He has been absent from Congress since September because of an undisclosed illness.
Of the 29 new Southern members of the House, 17 are Republicans and 12 are Democrats. Republicans hold 101 Southern seats, compared to 50 for Democrats, with North Carolina’s 9th District vacant.
The 9th District seat is likely to remain vacant until after the state elections board completes its investigation into the allegations of absentee ballot irregularities, which has been delayed until February because of a new law revamping the board.
Harris has filed a lawsuit seeking for force certification of the election.
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Four Southern Democrats among rebels opposing Nancy Pelosi for U.S. House speaker
Four incoming freshmen have not taken a position on Pelosi’s tenure as Democratic leader
♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor
WASHINGTON (CFP) — After an election season in which Republicans used the specter of Nancy Pelosi’s speakership as a weapon against their Democratic opponents, four Southern Democrats, including two incoming freshman, have signed on to an effort to replace her as Democratic leader.
Two incumbents — Jim Cooper of Tennessee and Filemon Vela of Texas — and one newcomer, Joe Cunningham of South Carolina, are among 16 House members who signed a letter calling for “new leadership” in the Democratic caucus, which will take control of the House in January.
“Our majority came on the backs of candidates who said that they would support new leadership because voters in hard-win districts, and across the country, want to see real change in Washington,” the letter said. “We promised to change the status quo, and we intent to deliver on that promise.”
The anti-Pelosi rebels said they would oppose her as speaker both in the vote in which Democrats will select a speaker candidate on November and on the House floor, where Pelosi will need a majority of 218 votes to defeat the Republicans’ expected candidate, Kevin McCarthy, in January.
Democrats are on track to have 234 seats in the new House, which means Pelosi can lose a maximum of 16 Democratic votes.
In addition to the three Southern Democrats who signed the letter, another incoming freshman, Abigail Spanberger of Virginia, has said she will oppose Pelosi.
In an interview with CNN, Spanberger said that while she has “tremendous respect” for Pelosi, “one of the things that I talked about frequently on the campaign trail was the need to have new voices in Congress, the need to turn a new page in the way we engage across the aisle, and really to be able to work on the priorities that were most important to the people in my district.”
Four other incoming members — Colin Allred of Texas, Kendra Horn of Oklahoma, Lucy McBath of Georgia, and Elaine Luria of Virginia — have not taken a position on Pelosi’s speakership. All four narrowly won their races over Republican incumbents who highlighted their possible support for Pelosi in their campaigns.
The six remaining Southern Democratic freshmen — Veronica Escobar, Sylvia Garcia and Lizzie Pannill Fletcher of Texas, Donna Shalala and Debbie Mucarsel-Powell of Florida, and Jennifer Wexton of Virginia — have all said they will support Pelosi.
Escobar and Garcia won open Democratic seats. Fletcher, Shalala, Mucarsel-Powell and Wexton flipped Republican seats.
Pelosi, 78, has represented San Francisco in the House since 1987 and has led House Democrats since 2002. She served as speaker from 2007 until 2011, the first woman to hold the post.
Her long tenure as leader — 16 years and counting — and her usefulness as a bogeyman for Republicans are driving the opposition to her, which is generally not a fight over policy or ideology.
However, the rebellion against Pelosi within the Democratic caucus is not widespread, including among Southern members. Only Cooper and Vela are opposing her; 116 other returning Southern Democratic members are expected to support her.
Cooper’s opposition is not a surprise. The Nashville Democrat, who has opposed Pelosi five times in the past, told The Tennessean that new Democratic members “won their districts by tiny margins and are in danger of losing in 2020 unless we prove to voters that we are working hard to get America back on track.”
Vela, from Brownsville, had supported Pelosi’s bid for Democratic leader after the 2016 election. But he called for her to step down after the party lost a high-profile special election in Georgia in 2017 in which Republicans relentlessly tied the Democratic candidate to her.
Republican Karen Handel, the winner of that special election, in Georgia’s 6th District in suburban Atlanta, lost her seat to McBath.
No one has so far stepped forward to run against Pelosi for Democratic leader. Given that party members are highly unlikely to vote for McCarthy on the floor, it remains unclear for whom the anti-Pelosi rebels might cast their votes.
One option would be to vote “present” instead of for another candidate, which would not imperil Pelosi because she only has to win a majority of those members actually voting. However, in their letter, her opponents said they were “committed to voting for new leadership both in our Caucus meeting and on the House floor.”
Should Pelosi survive, the lone Southerner in the House Democratic leadership, Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, is expected to become the House majority whip, the No. 3 position. He is currently the only candidate for the position.
Should Pelosi be unable to secure a majority for the speakership, the scramble to replace her could upset the entire Democratic hierarchy in the House.