Madison Cawthorn loses his seat in Congress after a turbulent 2 years in office

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

Madison Cawthorn, the youngest member of Congress whose two years in Washington were marred by a steady stream of embarrassments that exasperated GOP leaders, lost his seat in a Republican primary contest on Tuesday night.

Cawthorn, 26, rose to power in part because of his personal story. He overcame injuries suffered in a 2014 vehicular accident that left him partially paralyzed. But even in a GOP that has normalized conspiracy theories, and despite the support of former President Donald Trump, Cawthorn went too far too often for others in his party.

Rep. Madison Cawthorn.
Rep. Madison Cawthorn at a rally in Selma, N.C., in April. (Chris Seward/AP)

Cawthorn lost to state Sen. Chuck Edwards by a narrow margin in the Republican primary for North Carolina’s 11th Congressional District, which contains the state’s westernmost regions. Cawthorn conceded the race to Edwards late Tuesday night, according to CNN.

Even before he arrived in Washington in January 2021, Cawthorn had established himself as someone willing to play fast and loose with the truth. He repeatedly gave an inaccurate account of the 2014 accident that was contradicted by official medical documents, eyewitnesses and even his own father.

He also misled voters in a campaign TV ad about his application to the U.S. Naval Academy, claiming that his injuries in the car accident “derailed” it when in fact he had been rejected by the academy beforehand. And more than 150 students at the conservative Patrick Henry College, where Cawthorn studied for one semester before dropping out, accused him of “sexually predatory behavior.” He denied the allegations.

State Sen. Chuck Edwards.
North Carolina state Sen. Chuck Edwards. (Edwards campaign)

After the 2020 election in which he won his seat in Congress, Cawthorn loudly echoed Trump’s lies about the results of the presidential election, even speaking at the rally in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6, 2021, that preceded the assault by Trump supporters on the U.S. Capitol.

His provocations continued during his first year in office. In August 2021, Cawthorn — who had admitted on Jan. 23, 2021, that there was no evidence of election fraud in 2020 — said that “if our election systems continue to be rigged and continue to be stolen, then it’s going to lead to one place — and it’s bloodshed.”

Last fall, Cawthorn alienated much of the Republican leadership in his home state. In November, he announced he would switch congressional districts and run in a newly drawn district where it would be easier for him to win reelection. The Republican House speaker in the state Legislature, Tim Moore, had planned on running for Congress in that district. Cawthorn, in an implicit dig at Moore, explained his switch by saying he wanted to make sure an “establishment, go-along-to-get-along Republican” did not win that seat.

But after the North Carolina Supreme Court rejected new congressional maps drawn by the Legislature, Cawthorn said he would switch back to his old district.

Then this spring, he lost the support of GOP leaders in Washington. He accused other members of Congress of taking part in sex parties and illicit drug use, and then had to retract those statements and admit that his claims had been “exaggerated.”

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy dressed down Cawthorn. “It’s just frustrating,” McCarthy said publicly. “There’s no evidence behind his statements.”

Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., endorsed Edwards and said that Cawthorn had “fallen well short of the most basic standards western North Carolina expects from their representatives.”

Rep Madison Cawthorn of North Carolina speaks onstage.
Cawthorn at the Trump rally on Jan. 6, 2021, that preceded the attack on the U.S. Capitol. (Jim Bourg/Reuters)

The cascade of humiliations has continued for months. Pictures of Cawthorn in drag emerged, as did video of him lying naked in bed with another man. Cawthorn claimed both were harmless fun and not sexual in nature.

There was also legal trouble. He was charged with driving with a revoked license and ticketed multiple times for speeding. He has been stopped twice this year by TSA agents who found a loaded firearm in his luggage.

Moore, the North Carolina House speaker, called Cawthorn a “clown.”

“If you have clowns in office who aren’t serious about what they’re doing, you can’t get somewhere,” Moore, who is now running for reelection to the state House, told local reporters. “I’m just kind of without the words to describe what Congressman Cawthorn is doing and saying. I mean, some of these ridiculous recent comments that continue to build on one another.”

As the campaign wound down in recent weeks, Cawthorn had little in the way of a functioning campaign. He had spent most of his campaign money and was not running TV ads, and was rarely seen on the campaign trail.

Trump issued a statement on Sunday to try to save Cawthorn, who has been a steadfast supporter of the former president.

“When Madison was first elected to Congress, he did a great job,” Trump said in a statement. “Recently, he made some foolish mistakes, which I don’t believe he’ll make again … let’s give Madison a second chance!”

It wasn’t enough. Cawthorn’s loss is evidence that in an age when outrageous attention-seeking is often employed as a tactic, there are limits to what some politicians can get away with.