ASHEVILLE — When Rep. Mark Meadows announced he was vacating his seat to become the White House chief of staff, it kicked off a chaotic battle among a dozen Republicans with an ambition to be the next U.S. congressman from North Carolina’s 11th District. The crowded primary field left no candidate with the required 30% vote totals, so Lynda Bennett and Madison Cawthorn will face each other June 23 in a second primary, initially scheduled for May 12 but delayed by the state Board of Elections due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Despite all of Asheville’s Buncombe County being added to the 11th District, the seat still heavily favors Republicans, making the winner of the second primary also the heavy favorite in November. The runoff, between two candidates unknown to much of the voting public before the race, has seen fireworks over issues like big-name endorsements, whether to have more debates and which candidate is better prepared to take on the important role.
Bennett, 62, has worked in real estate for more than 35 years and made a name for herself as a conservative activist, assisting the Republicans’ rise in her native Haywood County and western North Carolina.
“I’m a Christian and conservative constitutionalist,” Bennett told NSJ. She said these core beliefs are why she became an activist after the housing crisis in 2008, which directly affected her real estate business, and they are what is guiding her run for Congress now.
Cawthorn, 24, is also in real estate and would be the youngest congressman the district has seen, and among the youngest in U.S. history, since the minimum age is 25, which he’d turn before being sworn in. Cawthorn was planning to attend the Naval Academy and then pursue a career in the Marine Corps, but a car accident in Florida derailed those plans. He now has limited use of his legs and uses a wheelchair.
Cawthorn told NSJ that after the accident, he “felt pretty worthless” and “got in a pretty dark spot.” But then at a Meadows victory party, the congressman, a personal mentor of his, got on his knees so he could look at Cawthorn eye-to-eye and asked him to come work for him. Cawthorn said that working for Meadows showed him “what a congressman does day in, day out” and convinced him, “I can still do this.”
While both candidates know Meadows well, as did other candidates in the primary, his early backing of Bennett was controversial to many Republicans who felt he should have remained neutral. The timing of his departure also left them at a disadvantage, according to Cawthorn and other primary candidates, while Bennett seemed to have been tipped off beforehand.
“I remember on Dec. 19, I was in San Diego speaking at a conference, and then all of a sudden, my assistant wakes me at 6 a.m. and, it was very strange for him to just come by my room like that, and he says my dad’s on the phone,” Cawthorn told NSJ.
His dad then told him that political contacts were frantically trying to reach him to tell him he had 14 hours to file if he wanted to run for Congress.
“She [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 said. “You go back to [Ohio Congressman] Jim Jordan’s first interview with Breitbart where he said he was endorsing Lynda Bennett. He said, ‘You know, I’ve never actually met the woman, but Mark says she’s good, so that’s good enough for me.’”
“Most of the candidates knew Mark Meadows and had some kind of relationship with him,” Bennett told NSJ of the endorsement. “So, basically, his endorsement meant a lot to me and I was very honored to have it.”
While some of the more recent big endorsements, like by Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Susan B. Anthony List or major conservative organizations, are from those close to Meadows, Bennett says there was an extensive process of vetting.
“Some of my more recent endorsements are not from people I’ve known personally, but they have looked at my activist background, how I’ve comported myself the past decade, seen the things that I’ve been doing, and they’ve based their decision on that without any personal relationship with me,” Bennett said.
She remembers at one point, she had six different conservative organizations on the phone grilling her with questions. Bennett said these groups respect Meadows and trust him, but that doesn’t mean they would just endorse somebody casually without doing the research.
Cawthorn said he “holds no ill will to Congressman Meadows,” and if he is elected, he will be able to put this behind him and work with Meadows and others in the White House. Cawthorn, like Bennett, has had a close relationship with Meadows over many years: having Meadows as his speech and debate coach, being nominated to the Naval Academy by him and working in his district office as a staffer. “This is a man who has really done a lot for my life, and I truly respect him, and I’m thankful for everything he’s done for me.
“The only thing that really puts friction in my relationship with Congressman Meadows is he promised that he was not getting involved in this campaign,” Cawthorn said, telling NSJ that Meadows, his chief of staff and his son all told Cawthorn that Meadows was not going to back a candidate in the primary, even if his wife Debbie was going to back her close friend Bennett.
“Then a poll came out showing she [Bennett] was in sixth or fifth place, and I assume Mrs. Meadows put the screws to Mr. Meadows, and he came out to endorse her,” Cawthorn said. “I’m disappointed in the choice that he made and that he wants to send such a weak candidate to Congress because I believe the people of western North Carolina deserve more than that.”
In addition to the endorsements, the candidates have sparred over whether to hold additional forums or debates during the second primary and amid the coronavirus shutdown.
Bennett said she participated in many forums in the initial primary, but Cawthorn has pushed for more opportunities for voters to compare their two remaining choices.
“It’s become painfully clear, which I believe is the reason she refuses to enter a forum or debate against me, that her talking points are just that, talking points,” Cawthorn said.
Bennett disputes that they haven’t had a chance to have a forum with voters, citing a May 18 event put on by the Buncombe County GOP.
“So, basically, we were both on a Zoom call. That’s the new normal,” Bennett joked, adding that Zoom “doesn’t work as well here in western North Carolina as we would have hoped.”
But on the earlier in-person debates, she said, “I did attend quite a large number of them. Now I feel after being closed in like this for so long, I really want to get out and do that listening tour and be with the people and not have it be a one-way conversation.”
Bennett says she is open to the forums, saying, “I don’t know what they’ll ask for, but I have been in discussions with more than one forum. So I don’t know what the end result will be,” concluding she would be willing, but “it depends on the format.”
“That’s a blatant lie,” said Cawthorn on the Buncombe GOP Zoom call. “When you look at the definition of a forum, it’s something that has a moderator with prepared questions that you have to respond to. So it was by definition not a forum. Anyone can give a stump speech, especially if they are reading off a piece of paper.”
According to Bennett, the main thing that differentiates them is “experience,” and according to Cawthorn, it’s “effectiveness.”
“I believe that my experience does matter,” she said on what set her apart from Cawthorn. “I don’t just talk about it; I haven’t just read about free-market entrepreneurialism; I’ve lived it. And I think that would definitely impact our decision-making.”
She said she remembers listening to the news during the recession and how young commentators on television would say they’ve never seen anything like this before.
“Well that’s because they weren’t around in 1983 when we were in a very bad economy,” Bennett said. “So if you haven’t lived through 1983, 2008, 2001, with this COVID crisis, you haven’t seen anything but good times. There’s a process you have to go through when dealing with hard economies.”
“She can tout her business experience, and I can tout my business experience,” Cawthorn said. “Unfortunately, I have not had the benefit of being on this planet as long as she has. I don’t think it’s as many years as you’ve been on this Earth, it’s what you’ve done with the time you’ve been given. And throughout my life, I believe I’ve been far, far more, and exceedingly more, successful than she has if you compare her first 24 years and my first 24 years.”
Cawthorn said he believes he “can happily go into combat against the ideology and defeat it,” but doesn’t believe Bennett has the edge necessary.
“Right now, I think we need a pit bull in Congress, and I think the best thing that Donald Trump has done is he’s taken the collar off of so many young conservatives and said, ‘Hey, it’s not time for genteel politics anymore. It’s time to fight like hell because we’re about to lose our country,’” Cawthorn said. “And when you look at the two campaigns, sure she can tout her business experience. Thousands of people can tout their small business experience. But the thing I think I can tout is my passion and my ability to happily defeat a Democrat when it comes to debate about ideology.”
Bennett said she has been campaigning hard despite accusations from her opponent that she has been hiding from the public eye. But since the COVID-19 shutdowns, she’s just had to change her approach.
“We definitely changed our plans,” Bennett said. “A lot more telephone calls. People used to say you need to spend two or three hours a day on the phone. Well, no. Now you need to spend eight to 10 hours on the phone because you just can’t go anywhere.”
She said once the state entered Phase 1, she piled her signs in the car and hit all 17 counties in the district, visiting voters, donors and public officials. “It’s just wonderful to get to see people face-to-face again. But I just really enjoyed listening.”
One thing they both agreed upon was that socialism is a major threat to the country.
Bennett said socialism wasn’t much talked about when she became an activist, “and yet now, just a few years later, we have candidates that are openly embracing socialism, calling themselves democrat socialists, and their policies are definitely socialist policies.
“We need people to stand on the opposite extreme and not give in,” she added.
For Cawthorn, “combating socialism” was the first on his list of top three priorities once he gets to Washington (followed by infrastructure and reforming health care).
“You know what — this is the time to act. We are at this Dunkirk moment,” he said referencing the British civilians who used personal boats to aid their military in WWII. “So this was just my way of putting a boat in the water. Because I don’t want to have a child in five years and then already have failed it because I let our country fall apart and I didn’t do anything about it.”
Cawthorn said Republicans have for too long been the party of no on health care. If elected, he wants to be the face of health care reform for the party, creating an affirmative agenda to “unleash the beast” of free markets in that sector.
Bennett said if she’s elected, she wants to join the House Freedom Caucus, a conservative congressional group formerly chaired by Meadows, and pull the national conversation to the right wherever she can.
Voting on June 23 will be open to all 11th District Republicans as well as unaffiliated voters who did not vote in a non-Republican primary in the initial vote. Voting can be done in any of the three usual options: mail-in, in-person early, and in-person Election Day. Early voting will run from June 4 to June 20, and mail-in ballots can be requested until June 16.
The winner will face Democrat Moe Davis, 61, of Shelby, a former Air Force colonel.