A 24-year-old real estate investor and motivational speaker in western North Carolina has defeated the candidate endorsed by President Trump in a Republican runoff to vie for White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows’s seat in Congress, marking another race this election cycle that has bucked the president’s influence.
Madison Cawthorn, who turns 25 in August, was the surprise victor in North Carolina’s 11th Congressional District runoff against real estate agent Lynda Bennett with nearly two-thirds of the vote, according to the Associated Press. Bennett, 62, had endorsements not only from Trump but also from Meadows, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio.) Meadows vacated the seat in March to join the White House.
Please let this serve as my Complete and Total Endorsement of a great fighter and ally in North Carolina, @LyndaBennettNC. She is strong on Crime, Borders, Military, our Great Vets & 2A. She will be a great help to me in DC. EARLY VOTING STARTS TODAY. We need Lynda Bennett! #NC11
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 4, 2020
Voters have now snubbed the president’s recommendation in at least three recent congressional races, blemishing his previously undefeated record. On Tuesday, Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) handily won the Republican primary after Trump called him a “disaster for America” and a “third-rate grandstander” when Massie opposed the coronavirus stimulus package in March.
Earlier this month, self-described biblical conservative Bob Good ousted incumbent Rep. Denver Riggleman (R-Va.) in a primary convention in Virginia’s 5th District, despite Riggleman’s endorsement from Trump. That was the first time this election cycle, out of 73 races, that a Trump favorite did not win.
On Tuesday night, Cawthorn said he did not believe his victory indicated the president’s influence on voters was waning.
“I want to make something clear,” he said in a statement. “I support our great president. I do not believe this election has been a referendum on the president’s influence. The people of western North Carolina are wise and discerning. You observed both candidates and simply made the choice you believed is best for our district.”
Cawthorn will face off against Democrat Moe Davis, a former military prosecutor, in November in the GOP-leaning district, which encompasses western North Carolina’s mountainous region. If elected, Cawthorn would become the youngest member in the House; the Constitution requires members of the House be at least 25 to hold office. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), who is 30, is the youngest member right now.
Bennett has yet to concede as of early Wednesday morning, but the state GOP accepted the results.
Cawthorn’s unexpected victory capped a dramatic late-game race for Meadows’s seat after he announced he would not seek reelection just 30 hours before the December filing deadline. Meadows personally knew several of the dozen Republicans vying to replace him, including both Cawthorn and Bennett.
In late 2013, the congressman nominated then-homeschooled Cawthorn to the U.S. Naval Academy. But that plan was derailed months later in the spring of 2014, when Cawthorn nearly died in a serious car accident in Florida. He was left partially paralyzed and in a wheelchair.
In an interview with the North State Journal last month, Cawthorn said things started looking up for him later in 2014 when he attended a reelection victory party for Meadows, whom Cawthorn described as a mentor. He said Meadows knelt down to his eye-level to ask him to come work in his office, which provided Cawthorn the boost he needed during a dark time. He said he realized, “I can still do this.”
He would later run his own real estate business and give motivational speeches. He told the Washington Examiner in a profile last month that the accident “has given me the resolve” to represent the 11th District.
But Cawthorn’s mentor quickly endorsed his opponent after she entered the race. Meadows said in an ad paid for by House Freedom Action that Bennett was his “good friend,” “a conservative outsider, not a professional politician,” who would “work with President Trump to drain the swamp.”
Bennett “is notoriously the best friend of Debbie Meadows. So I believe Congressman Mark Meadows is doing a favor to his wife, and that’s why she received these endorsements,” Cawthorn told the North State Journal.
Cawthorn still talked up his ties to Meadows and support for Trump on his campaign website, saying he hoped to “continue his great work.” Beneath a photo of Cawthorn holding a rifle across his shoulders with a handgun strapped to his chest, he describes himself as a constitutional conservative who opposes sanctuary cities, “the Democrats’ plan to create socialized medicine,” tax hikes and abortion. In an Asheville Citizen Times candidate survey earlier this year he said the most pressing problem facing America was “the rise of socialism, especially among my generation, and I plan to combat that head on.”
He told the Examiner he viewed his age as a strength.
“I have had the misfortune of not being on this earth as long as my opponent has been,” he said. “But I don’t think that’s a weakness. I think it gives me a vigor, it gives me a fire, and it gives me a fight that you’re not going to see in someone who is going to rest on their laurels and say, ‘Oh, I’m successful.’ ”
Bennett, also in the real estate business, outgunned Cawthorn in almost every respect. She outraised him, $366,500 to Cawthorn’s $201,700, according to campaign finance filings. She collected the endorsements of major conservative groups, such as the House Freedom Fund, the American Conservative Union and Susan B. Anthony List, a PAC opposed to abortion rights.
Then Trump threw his support behind Bennett on Twitter twice, on June 4 and again on June 16.
“[email protected] has my Complete & Total Endorsement,” Trump wrote on June 16. “She is a great fighter & ally in North Carolina. Lynda is Strong on Crime, Borders, Military, our Great Vets & 2A. She will be a great help to me in DC. We need Lynda to help DRAIN THE SWAMP! VOTE EARLY!”
Cawthorn, taking a page out of the Trump playbook, campaigned against Bennett by associating her flashy endorsements as a sign that she was the swampier, establishment favorite and that he was the independent candidate beholden to no one. He bashed Bennett for declining to debate him, saying in one ad that she had failed to “show up for the job interview.”
“I won’t cower behind big-name endorsements, and I certainly won’t be beholden to any PAC bosses,” he said.
On Tuesday night, the North Carolina Republican Party congratulated Cawthorn and said it had full confidence he would defeat his Democratic opponent in November. Cawthorn said Tuesday night that he was ready to bring a “new generation of leadership” to Washington.
“While the far left is lighting our cities on fire, we are lifting the light of liberty. Nancy Pelosi and Joe Biden may not be able to control where the Democrats are going but, together, we can,” Cawthorn said.