Rep.-elect Madison Cawthorn, R-N.C., beat out a candidate backed by President Trump and the Washington establishment to become the youngest incoming member of Congress at age 25.
So he arrived in Washington beholden to no one and determined to shake up the Republican Party through new messaging, new recruits and new ways to fundraise.
“My election was really a referendum on the establishment,” Cawthorn told Fox News in a recent interview. “They’re really sending me up here to fight against that.”
Winning the seat without the help of the GOP establishment has given Cawthorn a sense of freedom from the traditional power structures in Washington and a motivation to help other young patriots break the mold, too.
“I don’t owe anybody except the constituents of my district my victory,” Cawthorn said. “And so because of that, I’ll serve them no matter what. And I think that’s how it should be.”
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Cawthorn is determined to be a powerful voice for the next generation of conservatives, arguing the Republican Party must change to make inroads with young voters who think the GOP is “angry and just says ‘no.'”
“There is a generational time bomb going off in the Republican Party and that’s because they have failed to connect with this new generation,” Cawthorn said. “They’ve failed to iterate the fact that we are the party of freedom.”
Cawthorn wants to “brand a new Republican Party” that is bold and inspirational. Republicans can no longer be the party of “no” and dodge thorny issues like health care and the environment. Instead, the GOP should be “thought leaders” on solutions.
Republicans also have been too hung up on social issues and should become libertarian on personal matters. The exception is abortion, which requires “very loud” opposition, he said.
“I really want the Republican Party to be bolder,” Cawthorn said. “I want us to be a big tent party that says I don’t care if you’re gay. I don’t care what your religion is. As long as you believe in freedom and believe in our founding principles, you’re welcome in our party.”
“I really want our party defined as the Freedom Party,” he added.
Rep.-elect Madison Cawthorn speaks after winning the GOP primary in North Carolina’s 11th Congressional District.
(Photo provided by Madison Cawthorn campaign)
Cawthorn will replace Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, 31, as the youngest member of the House.
Much like Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., has challenged the status quo with the Democratic Party, Cawthorn wants to shake up the Republican Party establishment and its fundraising machine.
While Cawthorn says the two couldn’t be further apart on political issues, he respects what Ocasio-Cortez accomplished. “I have not met her yet, but if I ever do, I’d definitely shake her hand and say, ‘Thank you for setting the example that you can be in your 20s and still make a difference in your country.'”
Cawthorn is taking aim at the political party structure, specifically the National Republican Campaign Committee (NRCC), which helps incumbent GOP reps win reelection. Cawthorn says the existence of the NRCC is one reason why “great patriots” can turn into “establishment pawns.”
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“I think a lot of people are lazy, and they’re not good at fundraising, and they have to rely on these big-dollar donors to give to the NRCC and then the NRCC will come in and fund your reelection and win your race for you,” Cawthorn said. “Because of that, they’re at their beck and call.”
Cawthorn supports term limits and balks at the House committee assignment process that rewards GOP members who are loyal to the leadership. It’s going to take new faces coming into Washington to say, “That’s wrong, we need to fix that.”
While some current members are effective at GOP messaging on social media, including Reps. Matt Gaetz of Florida and Dan Crewshaw from Texas, Cawthorn plans to bring in new blood to challenge the establishment.
He’s already started recruiting 2022 congressional candidates and hopes “to create a very-well funded super PAC so other patriots won’t require the NRCC’s help.”
“We’re going to have some great patriots that are going to come up,” Cawthorn said.
Rep.-elect Madison Cawthorn, R-N.C., at a campaign event.
(Photo provided by Madison Cawthorn’s campaign)
Cawthorn will succeed Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., in the 11th Congressional District that encompasses Western North Carolina. Meadows stepped down to become Trump’s chief of staff, and he and Trump endorsed Lynda Bennett in the GOP primary.
Cawthorn, who used to work for Meadows’ congressional office, said Trump’s decision to weigh into the election was “wrong” and it motivated him to work even harder to win.
“I think these big establishment people, these big-name people need to stay out of local politics,” Cawthorn said. “Let the people decide.”
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Cawthorn says his win shows that the people are in charge and he’s beholden to no one. “If I had relied on PAC money from the establishment Republicans, or from the conservative Republicans, or from Mark Meadows or Donald Trump, I would have been beholden to them. I would have owed my seat to them.”
Cawthorn poured $361,000 of his own money in the race, too, feeling confident his data-driven voter outreach strategy would prevail.
After Cawthorn beat Bennett in a landslide (66-34%) in the June primary, Trump congratulated the young Republican. Cawthorn got an invite to speak at Trump’s Republican National Convention where he made a splash by dramatically standing up out of his wheelchair.
In this screenshot from the RNC’s livestream of the 2020 Republican National Convention, North Carolina congressional nominee Madison Cawthorn addresses the virtual convention on Aug. 26, 2020. (Photo Courtesy of the Committee on Arrangements for the 2020 Republican National Committee via Getty Images)
Cawthorn’s election to Congress wasn’t the first time he defied the odds.
Cawthorn was a Hendersonville, N.C., high school senior and football player with military aspirations when his life changed in an instant in 2014.
The 18-year-old Cawthorn was a passenger in an SUV returning home from a spring break trip in Florida when his friend dozed off at the wheel and crashed into an abutment, the AVL Watchdog reported.
The fiery crash left Cawthorn partially paralyzed and with a 1% chance of survival, he said. He got through the painful aftermath with the support of his Christian faith and family, who raised him on “proverbs and pushups,” Cawthorn said.
Prior to the accident, Cawthorn worked at Chick-fil-A. He had wanted to go to the prestigious U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. Meadows, his congressman, had nominated him, but the academy rejected his application.
Cawthorn told Fox News he believed the rejection was because of “some clerical error with congressman’s nomination process” and he was still holding out hope the decision wasn’t final. His other option was a full-ride scholarship to North Carolina State for the ROTC program, he said.
But the near-fatal accident upended all of Cawthorn’s dreams. He fell into a “very dark” place when he realized he’d probably be in a wheelchair for the rest of his life.
“I got to the point where I was trying to decide if I wanted to continue living or not,” Cawthorn said. “I consider myself a very decisive person so I decided one night I was gonna sit down … and [I] literally wrote down the pros and cons of living or not. Eventually, the pros won out and it was hinged upon the idea that I still had the ability to make a difference and that my job on this earth wasn’t done yet.”
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Cawthorn went on to attend college for two semesters at Patrick Henry College in Northern Virginia, he said. He said he dropped out with the belief that the majority of Americans don’t need a four-year degree. “I think that we need more carpenters and welders and linemen rather than we need more people with the four-year degree,” he said.
He worked for Meadows’ congressional office after the accident on a part-time basis.
Cawthorn has been able to live off insurance settlement money from the car accident that left him partially paralyzed. He started his own real estate investment company. He also does motivational speaking.
Cawthorn disclosed making no income from either of those endeavors on the federal financial disclosure forms he filled out. Cawthorn said while Congress wasn’t his first job, “this will be my first time having a salary.”
After his Sunday swearing-in to Congress, Cawthorn will have another major milestone on the horizon. He’s engaged to be married to his fiancee, Cristina Bayardelle, on April 3, the anniversary of his car accident that nearly took his life.
“It’s just such a sad day in our life and so she just wanted to change the history of that day to where I don’t dread it every time it comes around and it’s more something I celebrate,” Cawthorn said.
Rep.-elect Madison Cawthorn, R-N.C., speaks after his election victory in November 2020.
(Photo provided by Madison Cawthorn campaign)
After Cawthorn’s primary victory, he went on to defeat Democrat Moe Davis on Nov. 3 by a margin of 55%-42%.
Cawthorn marked the victory by sending out a snarky message on Twitter that was quickly panned as childish: “cry more, lib.”
Cawthorn admitted to Fox News the tweet “wasn’t a good move” and if he could turn back time “I probably wouldn’t have sent it.” He chalked up the sentiment to being a fierce competitor relishing in his victory too much after a hard-fought campaign.
He said his tweet wasn’t directed at Davis, but rather the “cancel culture” that tried to take him down with “ridiculous allegations” of sexual misconduct and that Cawthorn was a Nazi sympathizer.
“[The tweet] was just saying people see through your lies,” Cawthorn said. “I think that cancel culture is very dangerous.”
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During the campaign, Cawthorn caught heat for a 2017 Instagram photo showing him visiting Adolf Hitler’s vacation house, called “Eagle’s Nest.” In the photo caption, Cawthorn said visiting the site was on his bucket list and he called the Nazi leader “supreme evil” as well as “the Fuhrer.”
Cawthorn faced allegations of sexual misconduct, including from a young woman who said Cawthorn tried to forcibly kiss her on a first date in 2014 when she was 17 and he was 19. Patrick Henry College alumni also released a public letter accusing Cawthorn of “sexually predatory behavior” when he was a student there in 2016-2017.
Cawthorn’s campaign rep told the Asheville Citizen-Times in August: “There’s a big difference between a failed teenage romantic advance and being forceful, to the extent that’’s possible when you’re a paraplegic.”
“I think that events were misconstrued,” Cawthorn told Fox News. “My intentions were misunderstood. If I ever made somebody uncomfortable it was never my intention. It was never something I wanted to have happened. It was strange that, you know, just a mistake, an innocent mistake … could be turned into someone trying to ruin your entire life. It’s a wild world out there.”
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Cawthorn drew comparisons between himself and now-Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who faced allegations of sexual misconduct when he was a teenager right before his confirmation hearings.
“I really felt very similar to him,” Cawthorn said.
Rep.-elect Madison Cawthorn’s congressional photo.
(Photo provided by Madison Cawthorn campaign)
Cawthorn understands that he’s under scrutiny as “a high-profile target” and he’s got to make sure he and his team are beyond reproach.
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He arrived in Washington last month for new member orientation feeling the weight of responsibility to prove himself not only to his constituents but also to the next generation of conservatives.
“I’m really kind of a representation for this Generation Z or millennial generation — the conservative side of them coming in to fight in Congress,” Cawthorn said. “And so I definitely take the responsibility very seriously and I want to make a difference.”