Why GOP leaders want to oust Rep. Madison Cawthorn

Placeholder while article actions load

Last November, Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-N.C.) texted his state’s junior senator, Thom Tillis, about a tweet from the senator’s wife. Cawthorn had just announced that he was planning to switch districts, and Susan Tillis took to Twitter to criticize the move.

“Why is your wife attacking me on Twitter?” the House freshman demanded in his text exchange obtained by The Washington Post.

The senator replied that he hadn’t seen his wife’s tweet, but suggested Cawthorn didn’t need to look far for a possible reason.

“Just spit ballin here,” Tillis wrote, “but maybe because you’ve attacked her husband?”

“I don’t feel like I’ve attacked you that much,” Cawthorn replied. “I think I’ve said I don’t think your conservative enough, did not realize that made us enemies.”

In fact, Tillis isn’t the only powerful enemy Cawthorn has made in his own party. The 26-year-old congressman has, in his few years in politics, sparked public outrage with his support for former president Donald Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election, inflammatory speeches, repeated driving and gun infractions, and even a nude video. But his falling-out with top Republicans in North Carolina and Washington also arose from more humdrum blunders such as neglecting constituent services and insulting party elders, according to GOP officials and operatives in the state.

The many controversies surrounding Madison Cawthorn

Now, those Republican enemies are openly lining up to take him down.

Tillis and many of North Carolina’s top Republicans, including the state’s House speaker and Senate leader, are backing a challenger, state Sen. Chuck Edwards, in next Tuesday’s primary. Tillis has personally raised money for the effort. An allied super PAC is bombarding the district with TV ads and mail pieces highlighting Cawthorn’s string of scandals and indiscretions — a list that gets longer with almost each passing day.

“Madison decided to throw elbows at these people,” said Carlton Huffman, a Republican operative from North Carolina who’s supporting Edwards. “He believes that there are new rules of politics in the Trump era and you don’t have to kiss anybody’s ring in the established party.”

For Tillis — who doesn’t face voters again until 2026 after winning reelection as a firm supporter of Trump — the turn against Cawthorn is driven by frustration with the freshman’s antics, disappointment with his scant legislative record and an element of personal payback, according to Republican officials and operatives in North Carolina.

“There is a ton of bad blood. For Tillis, this is personal,” said Michele Woodhouse, one of seven primary challengers for Cawthorn’s seat.

Tillis declined to comment for this story through a spokesman. Susan Tillis did not respond to requests for comment.

Cawthorn has cast the campaign to oust him as attacks from “the swamp” of establishment party figures angered at his commitment to Trump.

“The Establishment in Washington and North Carolina has fought against my reelection to Congress in a way I’ve never seen before. The people of Western North Carolina see through it. Our campaign is on track to win a great victory next week, no matter what comes our way,” Cawthorn said in a statement to The Post. In defense of his constituent services, Cawthorn’s spokesman, Luke Ball, said the congressman began accepting cases the day after he was sworn in and has resolved more than 1,800 to date.

The opposition from Tillis and other GOP leaders seeks to bring a sudden end to the meteoric rise of a political newcomer who surged to celebrity status in Trump’s Make America Great Again movement. The race is sh
aping up to be a contest between MAGA star power and old-fashioned political pull — a test of how far a candidate (besides Trump himself) can go in juicing online outrage for campaign cash and bucking the party establishment.

“There are so many people saying crazy things these days and people shrug their shoulders, but it was more of the personal behavior that people started to view him as immature and erratic,” said Jim Blaine, of the firm, Differentiators, who says his group’s polling for the national Republican group GOPAC shows Cawthorn dipping in popularity and Edwards rising since March. “He would be a modern-day Icarus, except he flew into the sun.”

Then-Republican nominee for North Carolina’s 11th Congressional District Madison Cawthorn on Aug. 26, 2020, urged viewers to study young people in U.S. history. (Video: The Washington Post)

Even Trump, who endorsed Cawthorn during a visit to Mar-a-Lago in March 2021, may be distancing himself from the embattled freshman. At an April rally in Selma, N.C., Trump touted his endorsement of Ted Budd for Senate and Bo Hines in another House race, but of Cawthorn said only, “He’s a great guy.”

Cawthorn said Trump is “my friend and the leader of our party” and disputed “anonymous sources and nameless accusations.”

“No matter whether he wins or not, he’s severely damaged,” said Isaac Herrin, a Republican field organizer in the district. “The knives have come out because he has not been a friend to the people of his district who helped put him in office, and he has not been a friend of some of the people in North Carolina who hold political power.”

Cawthorn and Tillis didn’t have a strong relationship to start with, but the tension between them took off at a Republican Party meeting in Macon County, N.C., in August. Addressing a crowd on the front porch of the county GOP headquarters, and brandishing a three-foot-long 12-gauge shotgun, Cawthorn called Tillis “a terrible campaigner” and “a complete RINO” (a shorthand pejorative meaning “Republican in Name Only”).

Elsewhere in the speech, Cawthorn warned of further “bloodshed” in response to elections that he baselessly suggested were “rigged” or stolen.” Those comments drew condemnation from congressional Democrats. But those were not the remarks that gave Republicans pause. Rather, it was his insults of Tillis that roiled North Carolina Republican politics.

Tillis’s allies, including Susan Tillis, were furious that Cawthorn was using a party function to attack a senator from his own party, according to Woodhouse. “My phone was blowing up,” said Woodhouse, who was then the party chair for the congressional district. (A Tillis spokesman denies that Susan Tillis directly called anyone.)

A few months after the speech, Cawthorn made another powerful enemy when he said he’d switch districts. Cawthorn announced his bid with a statement some felt insulted the presumed front-runner, state House Speaker Tim Moore, and the district’s voters at the same time: “I am afraid that another establishment go-along-to-get-along Republican would prevail there,” Cawthorn said. “I will not let that happen.”

The new district’s constituents included the Tillises, and Susan Tillis responded on Twitter that the voters there “didn’t need any intervention and we are capable of making our own decisions.”

Moore passed on running for the seat rather than take on Cawthorn. Moore’s spokeswoman said he was unavailable to comment for this story.

Cawthorn further piqued state party leaders in December when he visited Mar-a-Lago touting a mock-up of “Congressman Cawthorn’s plan for North Carolina,” showing his picks for all the state’s congressional districts, including himself for the new district, Woodhouse for his old one, and Hines for another.

But Cawthorn returned to his original district when the state Supreme Court struck down the new congressional map. Tillis, Moore and state Senate leader Phil Berger endorsed Edwards, whose campaign has dropped more than $300,000 on ads ridiculing Cawthorn’s Instagram posts and comparing him to the Kardashians, according to media tracking company AdImpact.

Even more air support — at least $630,000 — has come from a super PAC called Results for NC that previously backed Tillis and the state’s other senator, Richard Burr. The PAC’s mailers, text messages and TV, radio and online ads savage Cawthorn for defending Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and getting caught in lies and embarrassing antics.

The PAC funded the blitz by raising $1.2 million in April, including $500,000 from cryptocurrency mogul Ryan Salame, the co-CEO of FTX Digital Markets. Salame declined to comment.

The super PAC also received $670,000 from Americans for a Balanced Budget, an anti-deficit outfit run by North Carolina GOP operative Douglas “Dee” Stewart, who declined to comment. A gas station business led by J. Hall Waddell of Hendersonville, N.C., gave the super PAC anothe
r $30,000. Waddell, who did not respond to requests for comment, has previously donated to both Cawthorn and Tillis.

In addition to rankling Republican leaders in North Carolina, Cawthorn also antagonized his colleagues in Washington.

In a March podcast interview, Cawthorn made claims about an “orgy” invitation and alleged cocaine use among Republicans in Washington. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) responded that Cawthorn “did not tell the truth” and described his actions as “not becoming of a congressman.” The public rebuke was widely seen as McCarthy giving his blessing to other Republicans to attack Cawthorn in his primary. A spokesman for McCarthy did not respond to requests for comment.

The making of Madison Cawthorn

“They shouldn’t have been waiting until he accused them of having orgies,” said George Erwin, a former sheriff in Henderson County, N.C., who backed Cawthorn in 2020 and renounced him after he spoke to the Trump rally on Jan. 6, 2021, that preceded the attack on the U.S. Capitol. Erwin is now supporting a primary rival, Rod Honeycutt. “They should have been speaking up a long time ago. As a lifelong Republican, I have a problem with that.”

Cawthorn is fighting the onslaught of attack ads with a depleted war chest. His campaign raked in $3.8 million, almost twice the average for a House member and more than four times as much as his rival Edwards. But about 21 cents of every dollar Cawthorn’s campaign received went to costs for raising money, such as consulting fees and commissions.

Cawthorn finished April with about $137,000 in the bank, compared with Edwards’s $191,000, according to Federal Election Commission data.

Operatives on the ground agree Edwards has the momentum and the attacks on Cawthorn are taking their toll. But with early voting underway and the primary coming up next week, the Edwards campaign may run out of time, and Cawthorn could still come out on top of the splintered field.

“I thought he was a shining star, like he was perhaps one of the up-and-coming stars of the party,” said Aubrey Woodard, a former local party official who’s thrown his support to Edwards. “I’ve not been impressed. The only thing we see coming from him has been something that we’d really rather not be involved in or hear about.”

Josh Dawsey, Alice Crites, Anu Narayanswamy and Dylan Freedman contributed to this report.