On the third night of the Republican National Convention, the would-be youngest member of Congress, Madison Cawthorn, got a moment in the national spotlight when he gave a speech in front of more than 17 million viewers. But his national debut was marked by a gaffe when he mistakenly said James Madison signed the Declaration of Independence.
Instead of being celebrated as a rising star, Cawthorn faced stories that said he had fumbled American history.
It was a high-profile misstep for the candidate from Western North Carolina whose campaign has been marked by several controversies in the past few months. He has come under criticism for a 2017 Instagram post celebrating his visit to Adolf Hitler’s vacation home known as “Eagle’s Nest,” which he said had been on his “bucket list for awhile,” and “it did not disappoint.” He referred to Hitler as “the Führer,” a German term of reverence.
Cawthorn also has a real estate investment company called SPQR Holdings LLC, which stands for Senatus Populusque Romanus, a Latin term for the Senate and the Roman People that some people link with white nationalist groups.
His Democratic opponent Moe Davis has seized on the controversies to portray the 25-year-old Republican as naive and out of step with the 11th Congressional District, which has new boundaries for the 2020 election that make it more friendly for a Democrat. In a statement to CNN, Davis said the controversies “paint a pretty clear picture of someone that’s got some explaining to do.”
Perhaps. But the district, formerly home to Mark Meadows, now the White House chief of staff, is still considered pretty safe territory for a Republican.
Cawthorn, a business owner from Hendersonville, North Carolina who has not held elected office before, wants to claim Meadows’s open seat.
Cawthorn was home-schooled in Henderson County and spent one semester at Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, Virginia before dropping out. He worked at a Chick-fil-A restaurant and as a staff assistant to then-U.S. Rep. Meadows.
AVL Watchdog, a local news website in Asheville staffed by Pulitzer Prize winners, has revealed inconsistencies in Cawthorn’s campaign biography, which suggested that he was unable to attend the U.S. Naval Academy because of a car accident that left him partially paralyzed. But AVL Watchdog obtained a deposition in which Cawthorn acknowledged that his application to the Academy had already been rejected before the crash. He is now CEO of a real estate investment company and a motivational speaker.
Cawthorn has said he wants to be a voice for Generation Z, those born in the late 90s and early 2000s, and is running to oppose “AOC, The Squad and the radical left-wing mob,” referring to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other progressive Democrats.
His opponent is Davis, 62-year-old retired Air Force colonel and former chief prosecutor at Guantanamo Bay. Davis earned his bachelor’s degree from Appalachian State University and his law degree from North Carolina Central University School of Law.
A once ardent prosecutor at Guantanamo Bay and defender of the terrorism policies, Davis resigned when he refused to be pressured by what he alleged was political influence from the Bush administration to streamline high-profile terrorist cases and use evidence obtained by waterboarding. He then became a vocal critic of the handling of cases there and the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques,” which critics say is a euphemism for torture. In 2008, Davis testified on behalf of Salim Hamdan, Osama bin Laden’s personal driver, a fact that Cawthorn uses as ammunition to call Davis a “terrorist defender” on a website Cawthorn created to attack his opponent.
In 2011, Davis joined the faculty at Howard University School of Law, and in 2015 he became an administrative judge with the U.S. Department of Labor, retiring last year.
Davis told AVL Watchdog that he decided to run for Congress after surveying the likely candidates and deciding that he had the strongest credentials to take on Meadows.
“I was disappointed when [Meadows] dropped out of the race because I thought he was an easy target,” he said to AVL Watchdog.
Davis now faces a candidate who lacks experience but has star power in the Republican Party.
In June, Cawthorn pulled off an upset when he beat Trump-endorsed Lynda Bennett in a runoff. Cawthorn then made it clear that he supports Trump and has tied himself closely with the president. He sums his positions up on his Facebook ads with a four-point list: “Pro-Trump, Pro-Life, Pro-Gun and Pro-Law Enforcement.”
That seems to have pleased the president.
“Madison Cawthorn, a real star. You’re going to be a star of the party,” Trump said to a crowd of supporters at the Flavor 1st Growers and Packers facility in Mills River on August 24. Cawthorn, bound to a wheelchair from a car accident that left him partially paralyzed at 18, beamed as he sat maskless in the crowd.
Cawthorn has been on the defensive because of the controversies.
In addition to the visit to Hitler’s home and the name of his company, he has been criticized for a July appearance at a private border wall in El Paso, Texas.
AVL Watchdog reported that his Instagram video in front of the wall included debunked claims about human trafficking of American children across the border. The claims originated with the far-right conspiracy movement, QAnon.
Cawthorn’s spokesperson John Hart told AVL Watchdog that the candidate “categorically disavows QAnon.”
Davis seized the opportunity to call out Cawthorn for a lack of integrity.
“My QAnon cult, alt-right opponent’s #StolenValor effort proves the USNA made the right call,” Davis tweeted, referring to his rejection from the Naval Academy.
Where they stand
The candidates generally follow their parties on the major issues in the campaign. Davis supports a public option healthcare system, which consists of expanded Medicare while still allowing people to opt for private insurance. Cawthorn wants to foster a competitive free-market system that he predicts would “drive down costs.”
For gun rights, Cawthorn advocates for few restrictions while Davis supports background checks, red-flag laws, and restrictions for purchasing assault weapons that are similar to a concealed carry permit.
When asked about reparations to compensate people for slavery and racial inequality, Cawthorn said he strongly opposed the idea and called the concept “racist.” Davis supports it and thinks the recently approved reparations resolutions passed by the Asheville City Council and the Buncombe County Commission should be expanded to the federal level.
Both candidates agree on the importance of securing broadband service in rural areas, but they disagree on how to do it. Davis supports HR 7302 Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act that would use $80 billion of funding to provide internet access for rural communities. Cawthorn proposes a reform to the formula used by the federal government for payments in lieu of taxes to give local governments more money to fund their unique infrastructure needs. He also suggests offering tax incentives to corporations to provide the service.
The Republican grip on the 11th District has slightly diminished in the new map. The district now has all of Buncombe County, including liberal Asheville, which had been partly carved out of the old map.
That made the district more competitive, said Chris Cooper, professor of political science at Western Carolina University.
“It made it possible for Davis,” he said.
The Cook Political Report recently downgraded the district from a solid Republican district to likely Republican.
Counties now included in the district are Polk, Avery and parts of Rutherford, all three of which voted for Trump in the 2016 election. Trump won Polk by 28.2 points and Rutherford and Avery by about 50 points each. But Burke and Caldwell, two counties that also heavily voted for Trump, were moved to the 5th District.
Still, that’s only a small boost to Davis.
“Even with redistricting, even with large proportions of unaffiliated, it is still a district that tends to vote for Republicans,” said Cooper.
According to the latest financial reports from June 30, Cawthorn raised a total of $803,058, compared with $493,434 for Davis.
“Davis is the best candidate the Democrats have had in this district since Heath Shuler,” said Cooper, referring to the former NFL quarterback and moderate Democrat who represented the district from 2007-2013. When the district was redrawn to remove half of Asheville, Shuler announced his retirement from the House in 2012.
The district is now closer to when Shuler first ran and won, giving Davis a better shot.
But Mac McCorkle, a public policy professor at Duke University, said Davis needs a significant push from a Democratic wave across the state in order to win.
“If Moe Davis beats Cawthorn, Joe Biden is gonna be winning North Carolina, and he’s gonna be winning the nation pretty big. It’s gonna be a blowout,” said McCorkle.
At top, Madison Cawthorn and Moe Davis. Campaign photos.
Update: This story has been corrected to indicate Davis’s position on assault weapons is not to support a ban but instead to seek the same requirement for purchasing them as for obtaining a concealed carry permit.