Cawthorn sees early challengers in reelection campaign

The 25-year-old congressman faces 2 Dem challengers and primary rumors

Rep. Madison Cawthorn, R-N.C., arrives at the Capitol for votes in the House, in Washington, Thursday, March 11, 2021. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Rep. Madison Cawthorn, a freshman Republican who represents North Carolina’s 11th Congressional District, has two new Democratic opponents and a rumored primary challenge despite being sworn into office just over two months ago. The early campaign activity comes as multiple critical articles have been published, covering everything from sexual harassment allegations to speaking at the “Stop the Steal” rally Jan. 6 before rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol.

In this image from video, Rep. Madison Cawthorn, R-N.C., speaks as the House debates the objection to confirm the Electoral College vote from Pennsylvania, at the U.S. Capitol early Thursday, Jan. 7, 2021. (House Television via AP)

The first challenger to announce was Buncombe County Commissioner Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, a United Church of Christ minister and executive director of the pro-LGBTQ advocacy group Campaign for Southern Equality. Beach-Ferrara announced her candidacy on March 3 in a campaign video that took direct aim at Cawthorn.

“Some people will say that a gay woman who’s a Christian minister just can’t get elected in the South,” Beach-Ferrara’s ad begins. “But I say an insurrectionist who flirts with Nazis and fires up a violent crowd to attack our Democracy, well, he shouldn’t get reelected anywhere.”

In what is likely an attempt to appeal to conservatives in a district where Republicans are favored by 12 percentage points, her ad ends with, “So with all due respect to the skeptics, this BBQ-loving, football-watching, proud Southern mom of three is running for Congress.”

Cawthorn used the announcement as an opportunity to fundraise, responding, “National interests in D.C. have begun recruiting candidates to run against me, and yesterday one of them announced. … Did you know that the most likely time to defeat an incumbent member of Congress is during their first re-election? That would be this election cycle for me. Meaning, it’s critical I have the resources to defeat these candidates handpicked by Nancy Pelosi and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.”

Days later, a second Democrat jumped in the race — Josh Remillard, an Army veteran who recently lost a state House race. Remillard struck a similar tone to Beach-Ferrara with his kick-off video, calling Cawthorn “a predator with numerous sexual assault allegations against him, who idolizes Nazis and took a pilgrimage to Hitler’s bunker.”

The allegations of flirting with and idolizing Nazis in the ads is likely a reference to a trip Cawthorn took to Germany, where he toured one of Adolf Hitler’s residences. In the Instagram post about the visit, which progressives have jumped on for use of the word “Fuhrer,” Cawthorn also made clear that he was opposed to the “supreme evil” of the Nazi leader.

A source inside Cawthorn’s campaign told NSJ that the two Democrat challengers are announcing their candidacies and using this inflammatory rhetoric to try to capitalize off of the recent critical articles on Cawthorn. The campaign’s strategy, he said, will be to mostly ignore them so as not to give them an undeserved platform.

Moe Davis, Cawthorn’s Democratic opponent in 2020, indicates on his campaign website that he is also “exploring” a rematch.

Carla Miller, the GOP chair for Macon County, one of the 17 counties in the district, told NSJ the attacks and articles “haven’t made any kind of difference really” in support for Cawthorn. She said Cawthorn does not have much to worry about from Democrats like Beach-Ferrara, who is “an Asheville person,” and that “most people would not even recognize that name, quite honestly.”

Instead, Miller said Cawthorn should be looking within the party for the real threats to securing a second term.

State Sen. Chuck Edwards (R-Henderson) is featured in this photo courtesy of the N.C. General Assembly

“I think the biggest challenge for Madison is going to be a primary, frankly,” Miller said. “Sen. Chuck Edwards, for example, and others seem to be making a lot of noise that they plan to primary him. So I think the primary is going to be the bigger story initially than the general.”

But Miller did say, despite the negative press and challengers from both sides, “Madison’s popularity is very strong still in the district. He’s popular; he brings a tremendous amount of energy.”

Miller is not the only one to mention a potential challenge from Edwards, the owner of multiple McDonald’s franchises who lives in Cawthorn’s hometown of Hendersonville.

Cory Vaillancourt of the Smoky Mountain News, which serves much of the 11th District, said he has been noticing signs that Edwards may be moving toward a primary challenge for a while.

“I asked Cawthorn directly, while sitting in his D.C. office, and he agreed without hesitation that my theory appears valid at present,” Vaillancourt told NSJ on March 15, adding that he has “reached out to Edwards several times [to confirm], but never heard back.”

NSJ also reached out to Edwards about whether he plans a primary run and did not receive comment by time of publication, but other local sources confirmed off the record that he is being encouraged to run, even by national figures.

Edwards has, at times, been public with his criticism of Cawthorn, like on Jan. 12 when he tweeted about a speech in which Cawthorn told the crowd to “lightly threaten” their legislators to support election integrity. Cawthorn has maintained that the “threat” was political — like to vote them out of office — not physical, but Edwards saw it as dangerous rhetoric.

“There’s a right and wrong way to conduct yourself as a legislator and I’m extremely concerned about Congressman Cawthorn’s conduct,” Edwards tweeted. “As a legislator, I don’t need to be threatened to do the job the voters hired me to do.”

Because Edwards and Cawthorn have many of the same GOP backers from Hendersonville, those supporting a possible Edwards bid say they hope he can split off much of Cawthorn’s base of support.

One key local Republican figure, former Henderson County Sheriff George Erwin, has already retracted his support for Cawthorn over his participation in the “Stop the Steal” rally. In an interview with Blue Ridge Public Radio, Erwin apologized to the law enforcement community for encouraging them to vote for him, and said, “You can’t talk about you support blue lives matter and support the blue when you are firing up people who are harming law enforcement officers.”

Cawthorn responded to Erwin’s change of heart in his discussion with Vaillancourt, saying, “I think he’s a great guy. He did a great job for western North Carolina as sheriff of Henderson County. I always respect his opinion, and I have a lot of respect for law enforcement. So why he wanted to attack me publicly again, I’m not really sure.”

Lynda Bennett — Cawthorn’s primary challenger from 2020 who was endorsed by District 11’s previous congressman Mark Meadows, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and even then-President Donald Trump — told NSJ on March 15 that she does not plan on running in a District 11 primary race in 2022, “But somebody’s going to do it,” she said. “I’ll bet you money, in the end, there will be a Republican who runs against him.”