Is Madison Cawthorn on a crusade for the 'soul' of the Republican Party?
There is no doubt: Madison Cawthorn is a polarizing figure. No more so than within his own party.
"If Madison Cawthorn is the Republican on the ballot in the 13th (District), I'm not voting for Madison Cawthorn. I will vote for the Democrat," said former state Rep. Charles Jeter, who served in the North Carolina General Assembly from 2012 to 2016.
That is no small statement, considering it came from a Mecklenburg County Republican. Jeter resides in the newly drawn 13th Congressional District, the one Cawthorn has decided to run for next year.
"People will say 'Well, you're going to put Pelosi in charge,'" Jeter said, acknowledging the wrath he is likely to endure from fellow Republicans for speaking out against another party member, especially one so closely aligned with former President Donald Trump.
"Well, you know what? I'd rather have a grown up in the room," Jeter said.
Cawthorn's move to the 13th is a bold one for a 26-year-old freshman congressman, according to Meredith College Political Science Professor David McLennan.
"It's highly unusual for someone to move to a district outside of the one they're serving," McLennan said. "I mean, you don't see incumbents running in different districts very often."
Cawthorn's decision came after the North Carolina General Assembly's Republican majority completed new district maps for the decade. Those maps face legal challenges and are set for trial in state court early next month.
But for now, Cawthorn has filed to run in the 13th, a district that includes part of Mecklenburg County, a major media market, and then, moving west, Gaston, Rutherford, Polk, Burke, McDowell, and most notably, Cleveland County.
Catawba College Political Science Professor Michael Bitzer said Cawthorn's maneuvering was all the more shocking because it seemed to alter the trajectory of state Rep. Tim Moore, the Speaker of the House. Many political observers believed the new 13th District was specially tailored for a congressional run by Moore, a Cleveland County Republican.
But last month, Moore bowed out immediately after Cawthorn announced his bid for the 13th in a video posted on social media.
"We were first in flight, first in freedom and together we will put America first for generations to come," Cawthorn said in his recorded statement.
In that same video, Cawthorn also stated he was switching to the 13th because he was "afraid that another establishment, go-along-to-get-along Republican would prevail there."
That comment did not sit well with Dennis Bailey, a former Cleveland County GOP chairman, who, like many people, saw the slight as aimed at Tim Moore.
"Anybody that thinks he's a 'go-along-to-get-along' doesn't know Tim Moore." Bailey said, in an interview outside a downtown Shelby restaurant where the Cleveland County GOP was holding its Christmas Party.
Bailey said he thinks Cawthorn could be seen as an outsider in a 13th District Republican primary. Cawthorn is from Henderson County, part of what has been redrawn as the 14th Congressional District.
"Carpet baggers don't tend to do well, in my mind," Bailey said. "I don't think you can represent a district that you're not in and from."
Danny Lee Blanton, another attendee of the Cleveland County GOP Christmas Party that night, said he shares Bailey's view.
"If I'm going to vote for him, I want him to live here," Blanton, a Cleveland County School Board member, said of Cawthorn.
There is no requirement that members of congress live in the district they represent, though they typically do. And the new 13th District does include some counties that are in the western North Carolina district Cawthorn currently represents.
Catawba College Political Scientist Michael Bitzer says the "go-along-to-get-along" label couldn't be more inaccurate as applied to Moore. The longtime House Speaker has championed lower corporate and personal income taxes and opposed the expansion of Medicaid coverage.
"He has adhered to the Republican ideological orthodoxy of social conservatism, economic conservatism," Bitzer said of Moore.
Cawthorn has said he wasn't speaking about any particular politician when he used the "go-along-to-get-along" phrase.
But policy is beside the point when it comes to Cawthorn, according to Western North Carolina University Political Science Prof. Chris Cooper.
"This is a rhetorical and tactical difference when we talk about 'establishment wing of the party' versus the 'Madison Cawthorn, Mark Robinson, Donald Trump wing of the party,'" Cooper said. "It's not about ideology; it's about style."
And it is about fulfilling a mission to spread the gospel of Trump.
"Cawthorn has got a strategy, and he has been quite explicit about saying, he wants to get more pro-Trump Republicans in congress," said Meredith College Political Science Prof. and Poll Director David McLennan.
That strategy was on full display a couple of weeks ago when Cawthorn and some other Republicans met with Trump at the ex-President's Mar-a-Lago resort, in Florida. According to widespread news reports, Cawthorn presented his own plan dictating which candidates should run for which North Carolina Congressional districts.
That plan included Republican Mark Walker switching from a U.S. Senate run to a Congressional race, paving the way for Trump endorsee Ted Budd to challenge former Gov. Pat McCrory in a GOP senate primary.
In an email exchange with WUNC, Cawthorn's campaign spokesman declined to provide details about the Mar-a-Lago meeting.
Cawthorn's brash style clearly resonates with Republican voters like Ronnie Grigg. Grigg is a candidate for the Cleveland County School Board and was also attending the local GOP's Christmas Party.
"Well I just think he stands firm on his beliefs and I think that's what we need," Grigg said. "We need somebody that's strong — a strong conservative."
Nannette Leonhart, another Cleveland County resident and Republican Party member, also said she likes what she has seen of Cawthorn online.
"He's a go-getter. He's not going to back down from the issues," Leonhart said.
One of those issues is questioning the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election. A conversation with Leonhart made clear she subscribes to the baseless claim that the election was stolen from ex-President Trump even though extensive post-election audits, thorough ballot counting and frivolous lawsuits have shown the claim to be a lie.
None of that seems to make a difference to Cleveland County GOP voter Linda Robinson either, who said about Trump: "He still is our president. It was stolen, admit it."
And Robinson indicated she was impressed that Cawthorn joined the ex-President at the Jan. 6 rally after which pro-Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol in a violent coup attempt.
Barring any court-ordered redraw of the Congressional district map and without any Tim Moore-caliber Republicans to challenge him in a primary, there is very little standing in Cawthorn's way to victory in the 13th, a district drawn to heavily favor a GOP candidate.
There are other Republicans who have declared their intention to run for the GOP nomination in the 13th. They include Karen Bentley, a former Mecklenburg County Commissioner, and former Huntersville Mayor John Aneralla.
Neither Bentley nor Aneralla got to file before the North Carolina Supreme Court suspended 2022 candidate filing and postponed the primaries until May pending litigation over state Legislative and Congressional District maps.
But Aneralla, who also has served as the Mecklenburg County GOP Chairman, while touting what he saw as his geographic advantage in a primary, implicitly acknowledged that even a Republican like him with a record of civic and political leadership faces a daunting task in taking on someone with the public profile of Cawthorn.
"All things being equal, 52% of the vote is in Gaston County and Mecklenburg County," Aneralla said. "That's where the bulk of the vote will come from. However, you know, having big-name I.D., good or bad, will help in the primary."
For former state Representative and Mecklenburg County Republican Charles Jeter, the stakes in a 13th District GOP primary are high.
"To me, I don't want to get too melodramatic," Jeter said. "But I really do believe it's the soul of Republican Party."