Congressman Madison Cawthorn ’s mistakes and liabilities run the gamut.

Some, like credible allegations of serial sexual misconduct and multiple weapon violations, are potentially criminal. Others, like misleading people about military service and training for the Paralympics, reveal a tenuous relationship with the truth. Still more, like telling a disability rights activist to “chill the fuck out,” suggest a striking lack of maturity.

Together, they’re examples of a nascent career built around attention rather than public policy. Or, in his words, “comms rather than legislation.”

Politically, a trifecta of strengths overshadows those liabilities: voting patterns that are increasingly defined by partisanship over everything else, a Republican-friendly district, and the power of incumbency. That’s what drove the conventional wisdom that Cawthorn was all but guaranteed a return to the halls of Congress.

While none of his many controversies on their own have truly endangered his position, one decision this winter has been fundamentally different: an unprecedented decision to voluntarily change districts, before backtracking to run for his current seat.

The decision has led to a genuinely difficult primary for him on May 17, filled with credible candidates who could hold him under 30 percent and force a runoff. What used to be a laughable question is now being asked seriously: Will Cawthorn be a one-term congressman?

In a state where congressional district boundaries move more often than a Methodist minister, the 11th congressional district has been an exception. It has remained tucked in the western wedge of North Carolina for nearly 60 years.

Georgia, South Carolina, and Tennessee hem the triangular district on two sides, leaving only the eastern edge vulnerable to redistricting shifts. Boone and Watauga County beckon just beyond the northeastern boundary, while vast swaths of the Nantahala define the densely forested but sparsely populated counties in the west.

Asheville may feature prominently in profiles of the district, but the liberal city makes up just 12 percent of its population. The district’s character and politics are defined at least as much by the dozens of small towns, hundreds of hollows, and wide swaths of unincorporated land that dot the mountain sides as it is by Ashville’s drum circles and progressive politics. The 11th is as much Brasstown and Brevard as it is Biltmore.

The district’s sprawling size and geographic isolation also create unique challenges in reaching voters. Traversing the district to meet voters in person can take as long as three hours, much of which is on two-lane mountain roads.

Mass media in the region is unusually fragmented; there is no print newspaper that reaches the entirety of the district and TV stations can come from Asheville, Atlanta, Chattanooga, or Greenville, South Carolina, depending on the part of the district. Even social media and internet outreach is unreliable for candidates, as broadband connectivity can vary from difficult to impossible to find in some parts.

Politics is still personal in the 11th and there is still a healthy suspicion of outsiders, particularly those perceived as using the people of the district to further their own political ends.

“Western North Carolina is the land of retail politics. It’s showing up, it’s shaking hands, it’s being at the fish fries, it’s visiting the different churches, it’s being at coon dog day,” said Brian Turner, a state representative from Buncombe County. “Western North Carolina wants to know that you’re going to show out and show up.”

Former Cawthorn supporter and Henderson County Sheriff George Erwin who has won more than his fair share of electoral victories in Western North Carolina told The Assembly something similar: “People up here want to look you in the eye; they want to shake your hand and feel your grip.”

Six months ago, 26-year-old Cawthorn was riding high. He was a fundraising juggernaut, raising nearly $2.9 million in 2021 and spending nearly $2.7 million of it. He was openly talking about a run for statewide office as soon as he is old enough. The newly enacted (but soon to be overturned) congressional map had turned his district slightly less red, but it remained a solidly Republican seat by any metric.

And although there were faint rumblings that state Sen. Chuck Edwards might consider a run, the only declared challengers were Wendy Nevarez, Rod Honeycutt, and Bruce O’Connell, three candidates who have a combined zero years in elected office, little name recognition, and no ready-made base of support.

The only sign that change might be coming were two payments of $1,000 in August and October from Cawthorn’s campaign to the Michele V. Woodhouse Committee. At the time, Woodhouse was the Republican party chair in the 11th congressional district, but she had no candidate paperwork on file with the Federal Election Commission or state board of elections, no candidate website, no campaign staff, and no organizing committee. She was, at the time, not a candidate for anything.

Then, on November 10, Cawthorn announced he would be running in the newly created 13th district that included part of Mecklenburg County, and the Charlotte media market that comes with it. Nine days later, Woodhouse entered the race for Cawthorn’s old district; Edwards and businessmen Matthew Burril and Ken McKim (who has since dropped out) soon followed.

Cawthorn’s implicit endorsement of Woodhouse soon became explicit as he circulated a map of North Carolina identifying his preferred candidates for each district. “Congressman Cawthorn’s plan for North Carolina,” as the plan was titled, featured Woodhouse (though it misspelled her name) representing the westernmost district in the state.

It only took three months for the plan to fall apart. The 13th district was renumbered and redrawn into a heavily Democratic district.

Facing the electoral version of Sophie’s choice—run in the district he had adopted and almost certainly lose in the general election, or run in a crowded primary in his old district—he chose the least bad option. On February 22, he announced he would be returning to the 11th district.

Now it was a very different race. Challengers occupied every imaginable electoral lane. Retired Army Colonel Rod Honeycutt, was running as the “boots on the ground” candidate with foreign policy experience. Navy Veteran Wendy Nevarez was running as the centrist candidate. O’Connell and Burril were in as the business-first candidates. Edwards, with his three terms in the state senate, was the establishment conservative and Woodhouse was running as an ultra-conservative “America First” candidate. A final candidate, Kristie Sluder also entered the race just before the filing deadline. Cawthorn had been arguably crowded out of the field.

If Cawthorn loses, it will likely not be on May 17, but rather through the runoff process. In North Carolina, like most southern states, it’s not enough to earn the most votes. You must also garner at least 30 percent overall or risk a second primary on July 26.

Cawthorn and the voters of the 11th have more than just a passing familiarity with this rule. In 2020, Cawthorn came second to Lynda Bennett but held her under 30 percent, forcing a runoff that he then won. Likewise, the previous officeholder in the 11th, Mark Meadows, required a second primary before he could secure victory, although the runoff threshold at that point was ten percentage points higher than it is today.

The math is simple: as the number of quality candidates in a field increases, so does the probability that there will be a runoff. Every candidate will garner some votes, and each vote makes it less likely that the winning candidate will hit the threshold to avoid a runoff.

In 2020, there were 12 Republican candidates in the 11th district’s Republican primary and the top seven candidates garnered 23, 20, and 19 percent of the vote at the high end, and nine and seven percent at the low end.

Cawthorn’s incumbency makes such an evenly split electorate less likely this year. But after considering each candidate’s geographic base of support and the potential uncertainty introduced by unaffiliated voters, it’s far from impossible.

The center of population and political power in the 11th district rests in the adjacent but politically distinct counties of Buncombe and Henderson. Buncombe includes liberal Asheville while Henderson provides the heart of Republican strength.

Cawthorn’s margins of victory in his 2020 races were larger in Henderson County than any other county currently in the district. But it wasn’t just the margins that make Henderson County so important for Cawthorn—it’s also the size of the Republican electorate. More than two out of every five votes Cawthorn received in the 2020 primary came from Henderson County. In the runoff, the plurality of Cawthorn’s votes once again came from his home county. His victory was based on a Henderson-first strategy.

But now two of his most significant challengers have strong claims to Cawthorn’s title as Henderson County’s favorite son. Edwards has deep roots in the county, has won more than 60 percent of the county’s vote in three different state senate elections, and owns four McDonald’s franchises in the county. Woodhouse’s connections to the county don’t run as deep, but she’s registered to vote there, and rose to political prominence as chair of the district party from her perch in the home of Republican power in the West.

Others see an even more wide-open field in the county. “Chuck Edwards is going to get his support from Henderson, but I don’t think he’s going to get the support that he thinks he’s going to get,” explained former County Sheriff George Erwin, who is supporting Rod Honeycutt in 2022.

Erwin noted that Burril goes to church in the county and, as a financial advisor, has clients in Henderson. Both Woodhouse and Honeycutt have a base of support, too. “It’s a four-way race for Henderson County,” Erwin said.

Notably absent from Erwin’s four racers is, of course, the incumbent Cawthorn.

Regardless of which four you look at, it’s clear that Republican voters in Henderson County are much more up for grabs than they were in 2020—possibly enough to force a runoff.

Another threat to Cawthorn comes from a more unorthodox source. On March 23, a Political Action Committee known as “Fire Madison” published its plan to achieve the goal not so subtly expressed in its title. The PAC, formed by a small group of local Democrats including Cawthorn’s 2020 opponent Moe Davis, urged Democrats “to temporarily change registration to unaffiliated by April 22 and cast their ballot in the primary for Wendy Nevarez.”

The plan takes advantage of North Carolina’s semi-closed primary system where unaffiliated voters can choose which primary they participate in. Nevarez, a moderate Republican, had differentiated herself from the rest of the field as the lone candidate to say that what happened in the U.S. Capitol on January 6th was an insurrection. If there is a Republican that Democrats can tolerate, it’s Nevarez.

The plan drew mixed reactions. Some Democrats in the region applauded the strategy, believing it provides the most likely path to defeat Cawthorn. But others, like Buncombe County Democratic Chair Jeff Rose, are skeptical. The plan, Rose wrote in an op-ed in the Asheville Citizen Times, “just doesn’t work …[W]orse, it perpetuates the idea that voting is transactional.”

The plan was also a surprise to Nevarez. “They just sent a general email to [the campaign’s] web site with the press release they had already written,” she told The Assembly. “There was no communication before, no vetting. I thought, ‘Oh my God, this is going to cause more problems than help.’ I had to embrace the thing because they were going to use it with or without me.”

The maneuver is reminiscent of Rush Limbaugh’s 2008 “Operation Chaos,” where the radio host urged Republican voters in key states (including North Carolina) to switch to unaffiliated and cast a vote for Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary in an effort to extend the primaries and select someone he believed was less electable.

It didn’t work. Research on Operation Chaos found it was a dud; very few Republicans switched parties and even fewer cast a vote in the Democratic primary.

Most observers expect the same for the Fire Madison plan. According to data from The NC State Board of Elections, the day after the PAC’s announcement, 126 people left the Democratic Party in the 11th district—the highest number of switches thus far this year, but not exactly a groundswell of support. Democrats in the district have continued to switch to unaffiliated at a higher rate than Democrats in the rest of the state, but at numbers that make it unlikely to be a game-changer.

But in an electoral environment where the unaffiliated already make up 39 percent of registrants and are the largest group of registered voters in the district, it’s certainly possible that a plan targeting both existing and newly minted unaffiliated voters may drive higher-than-normal engagement and dilute Cawthorn’s base in the primary. Targeting unaffiliated voters was Nevarez’s plan before the Fire Madison PAC hopped into the race. “I knew if I could turn out half of the unaffiliated voters in Buncombe County, that, by itself, would be enough to win,” she said.

It will be hard to know if the plan is working before election day. Because many unaffiliated voters do not consistently choose the Republican primary, they are also less likely to be called for district polls. The makeup of primary electorates are notoriously difficult to predict; a push around unaffiliated voters makes it harder still.

Cawthorn, despite his weaknesses, remains the favorite to win in May. He’s a fundraising juggernaut with sky-high name recognition. Most importantly, he enjoys the luxury of incumbency at a time when incumbents win over 90 percent of the time.

Nonetheless, there are signs that Cawthorn’s support may be waning. A recent poll on behalf of Edwards’ campaign found Cawthorn’s support had dropped from 52 percent in March to 44 percent in early April.

Erwin, the former Sheriff and former Cawthorn supporter, sees thatas a sign of things to come: “I don’t think the Dems are going to have a chance to face Cawthorn. Everything I’m seeing on the ground is that he’s losing support. I don’t think he’ll make it to a runoff.”

By virtue of his unorthodox boomerang trip out of the district and then back again, Cawthorn set up a scenario where he could lose, a notion that would have been laughable a year ago. To make that change happen, however, everything needs to fall into place—much like it did for an unknown 25-year-old in 2020.

Chris Cooper is the Madison Distinguished Professor of Political Science & Public Affairs at Western Carolina University, a contributor to Old North State Politics, and a frequent source for national and state journalists alike.

He’s the coauthor of The Resilience of Southern Identity and co-editor of The New Politics of North Carolina, both available from UNC Press.

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