A closer look at Madison Cawthorn — Western NC’s 24-year-old Congressional frontrunner

In this undated photo made available by Stephen Smith, GOP primary candidate Madison Cawthorn participates in a debate at the Haywood County Courthouse in Waynesville, N.C. Cawthorn, 24, defeated Lynda Bennett by a 2-1 margin. (Stephen Smith via AP)

RALEIGH — While many in Gen Z are in the streets protesting for change — or just posting about it on social media — one conservative member of the generation is trying to take his vision for the country to the U.S. Congress. In November, this western North Carolina native is poised to become the youngest member of Congress, meeting the 25-year age requirement set out in the Constitution by mere months, despite many hurdles along the way.

When the Republican primary to replace President Donald Trump’s chief of staff, Mark Meadows, began, Madison Cawthorn’s name appeared next to 11 others and was not immediately considered among the favorites. After he squeaked into a runoff with Trump and Meadows’ hand-picked candidate, the nation asked collectively, “Who?” and began typing Cawthorn’s name in their search engines.

Now that Cawthorn has won the runoff, and by a very comfortable 2-to-1 margin, there’s an even greater demand for information, especially since, in the heavily Republican district, the primary win makes him the overwhelming favorite to be the area’s next congressman. People want to know how old he is, how he came to be in a wheelchair and how he was able to pull off a political victory when the president and most other top leaders of his own party were rooting against him.

Starting with his background, Cawthorn told NSJ in a phone interview that he had always been interested in politics, and his family raised him to discuss the big issues at their dinner table.

“Growing up and going over to people’s houses, I was really surprised at the dinner table conversations I would get. They never had anything to do with current events or politics,” Cawthorn said. “And growing up, I just thought that that was a mainstay of the American people, and that’s something that everyone focused on.”

His family has been in western North Carolina for eight generations and has deep ties in Hendersonville. Cawthorn was homeschooled and was very active in Biltmore Church in nearby Asheville.

A family friend, Taylor Bell, remembers when Madison was in high school and would come to her and her husband’s apartment for church small group.

“One of the most memorable things about Madison is how much of a people person he was. He was just so extraverted,” Bell told NSJ. “I think anyone who knew Madison then and knows him now, is not at all surprised he’s running for Congress.”

She also recalls that, in addition to his “life of the party” side, Cawthorn was very determined and a hard worker. “He was just your all-American guy,” Bell said.

From a military family, he had laid out a detailed plan of his future that included joining the U.S. Marines.

“My dream had always been to serve my country,” Cawthorn told NSJ. “My family has been Marines for the last six generations. They fought in the Revolutionary War, and you can trace it all the way back, then they were Marines every single generation. So, my plan had always been to go to the Naval Academy and then to go into the Marine Corps. After that I wanted to come home, start a business and raise my family.”

But once these first stages of his plan were achieved, he said, “It was always my dream to go into politics, because I truly care about my country and I didn’t want to see it lost.”

He was nominated to the U.S. Naval Academy by then-Congressman Mark Meadows, a close personal mentor. This plan was derailed though in 2014 when a near-fatal car accident in Florida left him with limited use of his legs.

“It’s just ridiculous that they want you to be able to run to fight in a war. I can’t believe it,” Cawthorn joked. “But once I came back home, I really felt pretty worthless. I got in a pretty dark spot.”

“I remember it vividly. I think it rocked the whole community,” Bell said about the car accident. ”At first nobody thought he was going to live, the accident was so bad.” 

She said the community circled around the family closely though and helped in any way they could.

“Madison, I know he has a really strong faith, and he had a really strong community, and of course, I think the world of his parents too,” Bell said on what pulled Cawthorn through that time. “I don’t think anybody was very surprised at how determined he was to continue with life and still chase after his dreams and what was important to him.”

He was still “very limited” because of his injuries and “was just trying to survive,” but a trip to a Meadows victory party helped him turn the corner on this dark time.

“He had been my mentor growing up; he had been my speech and debate coach; he had nominated me to the Naval Academy; so I had a great relationship with him,” Cawthorn said of Meadows. “He walked up to me, I remember, and he knelt down on one knee, and he said, ‘Madison, how about you come work for me?’ So, that just really blew me away.”

So, then Cawthorn began working for Meadow’s district office, and “really got to figure out what a congressman does day-in day-out.”

And at that point, Cawthorn said he realized, “Wow, I can still do this. My mind is still there and you don’t actually have to be in that good physical shape to be in political office, I found out. So that rekindled that dream that had always been an underlying goal of mine.”

The goal, he said, was not necessarily to serve in Congress, but just that, “It’s a duty to serve your country,” and this was a way to do that now that he couldn’t serve in the military.

With renewed purpose, Cawthorn was able to create a new plan with the cards he was dealt. He started a real estate business, got engaged to his girlfriend and became a motivational speaker on overcoming adversity.

“I was thinking 29 [years old], 31, something like that,” Cawthorn said on when he had planned to run for office. “I had started my business a year and a half before that, so that’s where my whole focus was. But once this happened [Meadows announcing his retirement], I had just that week gotten engaged. So now with my fiance, we’re talking about having a family and moving forward with our future, and I just really thought, this is the time to act.”

His reasoning for jumping in at that moment was that he had lost faith in many of the current Republican leadership. He said in 2016, they had both houses of Congress and the presidency but still weren’t taking the bold steps he said they had promised.

“They always made excuses of why they had to pass certain stimulus packages or weren’t able to do certain things. They would say, ‘Oh, it’s because of the Democrats.’ But then when the Democrats were a non-factor, they still didn’t do anything. So I just felt like the American people had been lied to and deserved more.”

Cawthorn said it was a “Dunkirk moment,” referencing the British civilians who grew restless and took matters in their own hands during WWII with their private boats.

“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.”

He told NSJ that there are three main issues he wants to focus on: combating the rise of socialism, building and repairing infrastructure, and creating a positive agenda around health care.

“I would love to be the face of health care reform for the Republican Party. For too long, we’ve just been the party of ‘no’ with no real plan to change it,” Cawthorn said. “I think the answer to this entire thing is to unleash the beast of free market capitalism and lower the cost for everyday Americans.”

Congressman Mark Walker (NC-06) joined Madison Cawthorn at his victory party in Hendersonville on Tuesday, June 23. Photo via Mark Walker Twitter account

While Trump endorsed his opponent in the runoff primary, Cawthorn has nothing but kind words for the president, saying, “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 gentle politics anymore. It’s time to fight like hell, because we’re about to lose our country.”

When Trump recently tweeted that he had an 82-1 record in his recent congressional elections, Cawthorn responded, “Even though I represent that ‘1’, I promise you, there will be no stronger advocate of the President than me. Can’t wait to ensure you finally get tired of winning, sir.”

Cawthorn also told NSJ, “I hold no ill-will to Congressman Meadows,” despite butting heads in the primary.

He said he expects to be able to form a cordial relationship with the Meadows-run White House.

“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. And so I’m more than happy to put whatever has transpired behind me so I can work to make western North Carolina a better place.”

Cawthorn does have a Democratic opponent in November, Moe Davis, a 61-year-old former Air Force colonel from Shelby, but even with the addition of more liberal voters from Asheville in the newly redrawn district, the race heavily favors Republicans.