North Carolina Race Suggests Trump’s Washington Has Become the ‘Swamp’
2020-07-07 | Since 10 Month
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP took to Twitter last month to tout the power of his endorsements in recent elections. "82-1 Record in Congressional Specials and Primary Elections Since the 2018 Midterms," read a siren-red and white graphic he shared.
Analysts have taken issue with both figures, but one pivotal defeat was beyond question. It came days earlier, in a Republican primary runoff in the mountainous western region of North Carolina for the House seat vacated by former Rep. Mark Meadows, who now serves as Trump's chief of staff. The victor, 24-year old Madison Cawthorn, clobbered opponent Lynda Bennett, who was endorsed by Trump, Meadows and out-of-state Republican lawmakers, and who had the power of national super PACs behind her.
Cawthorn's win was an ironic twist of fate. In 2016, Trump wooed voters, including those in western North Carolina, with his political-outsider status and promises to "drain the swamp" in Washington. But it was the involvement of the national political machine that he now helms that cast his chosen candidate in the North Carolina race as an "insider," ultimately dooming her and aiding Cawthorn – an articulate and charismatic candidate who is now poised to become the youngest member of the House of Representatives – to a decisive win that demonstrated the power of local interests and retail politics.
"Some of the things Trump campaigned on – you know, running against the establishment – that message is a persuasive one, even when it runs against his preferred candidate," says Chris Cooper, a professor of political science at Western Carolina University who follows local politics closely.
Many Republican voters in the region were wary of Bennett's campaign since the moment it started and have accused Meadows of timing his retirement in a way that gave Bennett, a close friend of Meadows' wife, an unfair leg up.
Meadows announced his retirement from the seat in the early morning of Dec. 19 – just 30 hours before the filing deadline for the race. While candidates in both parties scrambled to enter, Bennett appeared incredibly prepared. She sent out a press release announcing her candidacy and had a slick website ready to go on a domain that appeared to have been registered two months earlier in the name of "Scott Meadows," presumed to be Meadows' brother.
Meadows then endorsed Bennett over the candidacy of one of his former staffers and over multiterm state Sen. Jim Davis, one of the most prominent politicians in the area.
Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio also endorsed Bennett, a businesswoman and party activist. House Freedom Action, a PAC that backs conservative candidates, sent voters text messages with a video of Jordan touting Bennett's candidacy.
Twelve candidates ended up running for the seat, and Bennett came out on top during the primary in March with nearly 23% of the vote. Cawthorn came in a close second, and the pair advanced to a runoff, slotted for June 23.
Then came an endorsement from Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and, in June, the official nod from Trump. Voters received robocalls from the president in the days leading up to the runoff election, urging them to support Bennett's candidacy. Bennett also had national super PACs behind her. House Freedom Fund, an arm of the hard-line conservative Freedom Caucus that Meadows once led, and House Freedom Action spent more than $1 million to support her, according to Roll Call.
But as the national GOP apparatus mobilized to back Bennett, Cawthorn nabbed a host of local endorsements. Several candidates who lost in the March contest endorsed Cawthorn, as did a laundry list of sheriffs, county commissioners and other prominent local Republicans. He also had some help from national groups: Protect Freedom PAC, a libertarian-leaning GOP super PAC, spent about $530,000 on behalf of Cawthorn.
When the runoff came, Cawthorn walloped Bennett, netting roughly two-thirds of the vote and handing Trump a defeat.
Bennett has defended the way she entered the race and pushed back on accusations of back-door dealings.
"In order to maintain GOP unity, President Trump asked Rep. Mark Meadows to hold off announcing his retirement until after the impeachment process in the House was finished," her website reads in a section addressing speculation about the timing of Meadows' retirement. "This was the only reason for Rep. Meadows' late announcement."
Bennett did not respond to requests for comment for this story that were sent to her campaign.
But Aubrey Woodard, the state GOP's chairman for the 11th Congressional District, says the manner of Bennett's entry into the contest and the perception that Meadows timed his retirement in a way that unfairly boosted her candidacy played a "significant role" in her loss.
"The people in this area … they like to be able to make their own decisions. They do not like to be dictated to," Woodard says.
Accounts from some voters bolster his analysis.
"In my opinion, before the primary ever got started there was dishonesty," one Republican told the local Smoky Mountain News before the runoff.
"What really turned me off was how Lynda Bennett rolled out her campaign. … That smelled fishy," another voter told the outlet.
Bennett's national endorsements, too, "did not help her," Woodard says.
"We all understood they were made in a fashion that basically involved Mark [Meadows] in each one of those, so I think we all knew where they came from. And the local endorsements were the ones that people felt were more important," Woodard says.
The endorsements, including the one from Trump, cast Bennett as a Washington insider, says Cooper, the political scientist.
"People in this region didn't believe, frankly, that Trump knew Lynda Bennett. People thought, OK, Mark Meadows arranged this. People aren't dumb. And then you add to that Ted Cruz, and you add to that Jim Jordan, then you've got just a perception that the national party machine is behind her," Cooper says. "Here's a great example of where it was the local party that ultimately, I think, was the deciding factor here."
And for his part, Cawthorn – who can trace his family's history in the area back more than 200 years – leaned into the fact that Bennett was endorsed by the national political figures while he garnered the endorsement of scores of local leaders.
"Washington, D.C. insiders and political bosses have hand-picked who they want as our next representative in Congress, one who will answer to their super PACs, political bosses, and caucus chairs," Cawthorn's first runoff campaign ad said of Bennett.
But despite Cawthorn's decisive win against Trump's preferred candidate, most agree that the results were not in any way a repudiation from local voters of the president himself. Cawthorn is vocally pro-Trump, and both his campaign and the local party emphasized that voters still back the president.
The 11th Congressional District was the most pro-Trump district in the state in 2016. The congressional districts have since been redrawn after the courts struck down the previous lines as a Republican gerrymander, but the 11th District did not change significantly in the revision. The revision has made it more competitive, but it is still expected to be a red district in November. Bennett's Washington connections were not the only factor in her loss, observers say. Cawthorn was a strong candidate who relentlessly reached out to voters and made himself available to both local and national press. Bennett, on the other hand, declined to debate Cawthorn and only gave a handful of interviews.
Cawthorn, who will turn 25 before November, would be the youngest member of the House if he beats his Democratic opponent, as analysts predict. He is a motivational speaker and real estate developer with an inspiring backstory: Cawthorn was set to attend the Naval Academy before he was partially paralyzed in a 2014 car accident. He speaks frequently about how that experience has lended him grit, empathy and informed his politics.
Cawthorn has been attacked by opponents for his youth and inexperience, but he – and other Republicans – see it as an advantage, especially as the Republican Party struggles to entice younger voters.
Cawthorn says he wants to "pave a pathway for the future and diffuse the generational time bomb that we have had go off in the Republican Party."
But Cawthorn does not represent a newer, more socially liberal wing of the party. He describes himself as a "constituional conservative" and sits to the far right on gun rights, abortion, health care, taxes and other issues. He drummed up national attention after his win – attention he has encouraged by relentlessly making himself available to a rash of media outlets, ranging from The View to Fox News to One America News, a far-right content producer favored by Trump.
He is, however, untested, partially due to the fact that Bennett declined to debate him. And his opponent this fall, Mo Davis, is the strongest candidate the Democrats have fielded in some time, Cooper says.
If the primary showed anything, it's that the race will hinge on local – and not national – interests.
"Even in a nationalized environment, here was a place where local politics matters," Cooper says.