Dual announcements by U.S. Rep. Madison Cawthorn and N.C. House Speaker Tim Moore have shaken the Republican establishment of Mecklenburg County — potentially the new stomping grounds of North Carolina’s most controversial politician.
Cawthorn said late last week that he would run for the newly-created 13th Congressional District, a seat political observers had assumed Moore would seek. Once Cawthorn announced his move, Moore promptly said he would stay in the state legislature.
It also created an opening in western North Carolina, where Democrats have been campaigning for months in hopes of unseating Cawthorn. One of them, Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, has already raised more than $900,000.
With Moore out of the race for the newly-drawn 13th District, which includes western and northern Mecklenburg County, Cawthorn has a significantly clearer opening. Several Republican leaders in the county either declined to comment or did not return calls when asked about their opinions of Cawthorn.
But some did speak publicly, and others raised concerns about whether Cawthorn truly understands suburban and urban conservatives.
“He’s a joke, and unfortunately as a resident of the 13th District I don’t want the joke to be on us,” said Charles Jeter, a Republican former state representative and Huntersville town board member. “A lot of folks in the Republican Party recognize that, frankly, if Madison Cawthorn is the future of the Republican Party then the Republican Party doesn’t have a future.”
‘In a daze’
Cawthorn, 26, quickly rose to national prominence after winning his congressional election in 2020. He has made a name for himself as an outspoken if not sometimes abrasive politician who says he is determined to shake up the status quo.
But he’s also drawn the ire of some fellow Republicans. He spoke at the Jan. 6 rally before the storming of the Capitol, seemed to defend rioters there as “political prisoners” and has supported the false claim that the 2020 election was rigged.
Former President Donald Trump endorsed Cawthorn in March, but has not publicly commented on his switch to the 13th District.
Speaking about his decision to not run, Moore said that he was focused on solving North Carolina issues, particularly in passing a balanced budget. He did not respond to an email from the Observer asking whether Trump’s support of Cawthorn influenced his decision.
Larry Shaheen, a Charlotte attorney and Republican consultant, said Trump’s potential influence in the primary for the 13th District should concern voters.
“The Republican part of this state needs to decide whether it’s going to be run from Mar-a-Lago or our local communities,” he said, referring to Trump’s private Florida club. “Because right now it looks like it’s run from Mar-a-Lago and I’m not good with that.”
Linda Angele, a Republican consultant in Mecklenburg County and the former chair of the N.C. GOP’s North Congressional District, said she was shocked and left “in a daze” by Moore’s decision.
Asked about Cawthorn, Angele said she “would prefer somebody who would represent us, somebody who knows us in this area.”
Why Cawthorn switched districts
Cawthorn’s chances over locals like Karen Bentley, a former Mecklenburg commissioner, will likely be influenced by his ability to secure fundraising from Trump’s extensive donor list. Cawthorn said he switched to prevent “another establishment, go-along-to-get-along Republican” from winning the 13th.
Not everyone buys that explanation. Shaheen said that Cawthorn could have had a tough general election against a Democrat in his home district. The 13th, though, is more solidly Republican.
“Now all he has to do is win a primary,” Shaheen said.
Matthew Ridenhour, a former Republican member of the Mecklenburg County Board of County Commissioners, said on Twitter that Cawthorn’s video was “an insult to the people of the 13th.”
“Voters in the new 13th don’t need some savior swooping in to rescue them from themselves,” he wrote.
Stacy Phillips, a town board member in Huntersville, said that among many local Republicans and unaffiliated voters, Cawthorn’s entry into the district has been “the talking point.”
“Everyone I’ve spoken to thus far is really unhappy and uncomfortable that he made this move,” said Phillips, a former Republican who is now unaffiliated. “You don’t even live here and you need to save us? That’s not OK.”
The race in western N.C.
With Cawthorn gone, an opening has emerged for Republicans in North Carolina’s 14th District, which covers much of western North Carolina. A few have already filed their candidacy, but none have emerged as strong fundraisers so far.
Some Democrats have been campaigning and have raised a significant amount of money, with Beach-Ferrara leading at more than $900,000 raised so far.
Cawthorn raised about $2.4 million during the first three quarters of this year and spent about $2.1 million, according to federal filings.
“(Beach-Ferrara) has been very successful fundraising from in district, but particularly out of district, and you’ve got to assume a good part of that is anti-Cawthorn money,” said Chris Cooper, a political science professor at Western Carolina University.
Of her donations of $1,000 or more, about 80% came from outside North Carolina, according to her campaign finance reports. Still, she will have a significant head start on Republicans who want to enter the race.
In the primary she will face several opponents, including Eric Gash, who has raised about $230,000.
“NC 14 is absolutely winnable,” said Beach-Ferrara, who also serves as a Buncombe County commissioner. “Our focus is squarely on getting out there and connecting directly with voters.”
On fundraising, she said that although some donors likely came to her campaign from an anti-Cawthorn perspective, they are more invested in the campaign for its own merits.