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The end of an error: Madison Cawthorn loses in GOP primary

It’s difficult to rank Madison Cawthorn’s many scandals, screw-ups, and failures, but one recent incident was largely responsible for derailing his career.


Ordinarily, when Donald Trump issues an endorsement of an incumbent Republican, the former president characterizes the GOP policymaker as a celebrated hero and a great patriot who has obviously earned voters’ support. When Trump endorsed Rep. Madison Cawthorn, however, the message was noticeably different.

The former president didn’t bother to pretend that the North Carolina Republican has been an amazingly successful congressman — because even Trump realized that no one would take such a claim seriously. Instead, Trump conceded in a written statement that Cawthorn has made some “foolish mistakes,” but he urged voters to nevertheless give the bizarre congressman “a second chance.”

GOP voters in western North Carolina’s 11th district ignored the advice. My MSNBC colleague Ja’han Jones reported overnight:

Far-right Rep. Madison Cawthorn of North Carolina lost in the primary election on Tuesday, ending his re-election bid after an ugly (yet entertaining) race characterized by Republican infighting. North Carolina state Sen. Chuck Edwards won the election by a narrow margin, NBC News projected. Cawthorn called Edwards to concede the race, Cawthorn’s campaign spokesman told reporters.

The GOP incumbent is now the second sitting U.S. House member to lose in a primary this year, though the other — West Virginia’s David McKinley — was forced to run against a congressional colleague due to redistricting.

As the dust settles, there are three key elements to this that are worth keeping in mind. The first is that electing Cawthorn to Congress never made sense in the first place.

Two years ago at this time, Cawthorn had not yet celebrated his 25th birthday. The motivational speaker nevertheless launched a Republican campaign, at which point there were all kinds of warning signs. As Dana Milbank explained in a recent column, “Cawthorn is a monster of Republicans’ own creation. His character flaws were fully displayed when he first ran for Congress in 2020: nods to white supremacists, extravagant lies, accusations of sexually predatory behavior, overt racism and a long list of driving offenses.”

When he won anyway, many predicted his career would be a disaster. Those predictions were accurate.

Madison Cawthorn
Rep. Madison Cawthorn talks with reporters at his campaign headquarters on May 17, 2022 in Hendersonville, North Carolina. Jabin Botsford / The Washington Post via Getty Images

It’s difficult to rank each of Cawthorn’s many scandals, screw-ups, and failures — the list is not short — but one recent incident was largely responsible for derailing his career. As regular readers know, the congressman appeared on a podcast in March and was asked whether the TV show “House of Cards” is realistic. He said he couldn’t help but marvel at the “sexual perversion” of his older colleagues, adding that his congressional colleagues had invited him to orgies and done cocaine in his presence.

House Republicans will tolerate an astonishing amount of misconduct, but this crossed a line: Cawthorn making up nonsense about them was seen as a bridge too far. The North Carolinian conceded that much of what he’d claimed was “exaggerated” — he also claimed not to know “what cocaine is” — but much of the GOP was underwhelmed by his explanation and turned on him with a vengeance.

In the weeks that followed, a series of embarrassing headlines about Cawthorn came to the fore, and the “flood of well-timed leaks“ appeared to be coming from the congressman’s fellow Republicans.

Though GOP leaders are unlikely to admit it, it’s a safe bet that none of them were disappointed with the results of yesterday’s primary in North Carolina’s 11th.

But while Cawthorn’s pre-election history was a mess, and his one term on Capitol Hill was worse, it’d be a mistake to assume he has no future in far-right politics. Yes, Republican officials will probably be eager to help him pack up his office and pay for his airfare out of Washington, D.C., but they don’t always get to decide who maintains influence in GOP politics.

Cawthorn has earned a ridiculous reputation after 16 months in Congress. He may very well remain a relevant player in Republican politics anyway.