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Politics & Government

GOP Congressman Madison Cawthorn has ruffled feathers in his 1st term

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Donald Trump will be holding a rally tomorrow night in North Carolina, and one of his scheduled speakers is first term Republican Congressman Madison Cawthorn. Now, appearing with the former president should, in theory, help propel Cawthorn to an easy victory in the state's May primary. But Cawthorn has said so many inflammatory things that even some Republicans in western North Carolina's 11th District are tiring of him. We should note that this report discusses some of those things, which include descriptions of sexual behavior. Steve Harrison from member station WFAE has the story.

STEVE HARRISON, BYLINE: Like the former president, Cawthorn has tested voters. How far is too far? The youngest member of Congress has been accused of sexual misconduct in the past. He said there would be, quote, "bloodshed" if the next election was stolen, and called those arrested during the January 6 attack Political hostages. Now, two more. Last month, he called Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy a thug. Then, on a conservative podcast, he talked about watching people do cocaine and about sexual perversion in Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MADISON CAWTHORN: Then all of a sudden, you get invited to, like, hey; we're going to have kind of a sexual get together at one of our homes. You should come. And I'm like, what did you just ask me to come to? And then you realize they're asking you to come to an orgy.

HARRISON: Under fire from Republican House leader Kevin McCarthy, Cawthorn later said he had exaggerated on the podcast. But the comments were a tipping point for some of the state's Republicans, like U.S. Senator Thom Tillis. He recently endorsed a state senator, Chuck Edwards, one of Cawthorn's opponents in the GOP primary. Tillis said Edwards would, quote, "never embarrass western North Carolina with a consistent pattern of juvenile behavior, outlandish statements and untruthfulness."

GEORGE ERWIN: I think everyone's pretty much jumped ship.

HARRISON: That's George Erwin, a retired sheriff from Henderson County, south of Asheville. Erwin says he was at first impressed by Cawthorn's resilience after being paralyzed from a car accident when he was 18. But after Cawthorn spoke at a Washington rally before the January 6 attack on the Capitol, Erwin disavowed him. He says Cawthorn isn't trustworthy.

ERWIN: The people in the mountains, most of us are Scotch Irish heritage. We like to look people in the eye, ask him a pointed question, get a straight answer and shake their hand and feel their handgrip.

HARRISON: But in the age of Trump, does a rebuke, however harsh by a former sheriff and a sitting senator, really matter? The answer may be not so much.

PAUL HEYER: To me, he's the lesser of the evils. I'm not a big Tillis fan.

HARRISON: That's Paul Heyer, a conservative who owns a barbershop on the main street in Columbus. It's in Polk County, where Trump defeated Joe Biden by 25 percentage points. He voted for Cawthorn in 2020. He doesn't care that Cawthorn last year said he was going to run in another congressional district before changing his mind and staying in the mountains.

HEYER: As long as he gets the job done that I agree with or what's good for us in North Carolina, I don't have a problem with them stirring the pot a little bit. I think the pot needs to be stirred a little bit. Sometimes I think the pot needs to be emptied.

HARRISON: Joyce Ferguson, who's retired, has lived in Polk County for four years.

JOYCE FERGUSON: I follow him some. I like him. I believe in what he stands for. Sometimes he may be a little too outspoken, but I'm for what he believes in. And I think he's taking a stand where a lot of them won't.

HARRISON: Earlier this year, a group of never-Trump Republicans tried to disqualify Cawthorn from running, saying his January 6 speech made him an insurrectionist just as Confederates were. A federal judge has so far blocked their effort. Twenty-year-old Noah Jackson was bothered by Cawthorn's January 6 speech. He works in a Christian bookstore in Columbus.

NOAH JACKSON: So I was homeschooled before it was cool to be homeschooled.

HARRISON: He voted for Cawthorn but won't again. He says the congressman's recent unsubstantiated comments about orgies and cocaine were too much.

JACKSON: I mean, you can't just say that your heroes that you looked up to before you ran for Congress, the reason why you ran, is participating in these, like, heinous actions.

HARRISON: There are seven other Republicans running in the May primary, none with a high profile. If no one gets more than 30%, there'll be a runoff in July. For NPR News, I'm Steve Harrison in Columbus. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.