Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-NC) went down in the face of a primary challenge on Tuesday night, buckling under an onslaught of opponents and his own party’s concerted effort to purge the troublesome lawmaker from its ranks.
Cawthorn called North Carolina State Senator Chuck Edwards, his leading primary challenger, to concede around 10 p.m on Tuesday, his spokesperson Luke Ball told supporters. The Associated Press called the race shortly after. Edwards led with 33.4 percent of the vote to Cawthorn’s 31.9 percent. The AP estimated that 99 percent of the vote had been tallied. Edwards had the support of influential voices in the GOP, including U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC).
Cawthorn’s short-lived congressional career was tumultuous from the beginning, prompting far more questions than answers.
The Nation discovered last year that the lawmaker, who uses a wheelchair after becoming paralyzed from the waist down in a car crash in 2014, had lied about training for the Paralympics; the Asheville Watchdog reported that the GOP lawmaker had similarly lied when he claimed he was about to join the U.S. Naval Academy before the crash (in reality, the academy had already rejected him); BuzzFeed News published a sweeping exposé revealing multiple allegations of sexual misconduct against him from former classmates at Patrick Henry College.
Additionally, Cawthorn aggressively promoted ex-President Donald Trump’s lies about the 2020 election and cast the Jan. 6 insurrectionists as “political prisoners.”
Perhaps predictably, none of those controversies earned more than a shrug from the rest of the GOP.
But Cawthorn raised his Republican colleagues’ ire in early March, when he bashed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and called him a “thug” while accusing the Ukrainian government of being “incredibly evil” amid Russia’s invasion.
Cawthorn’s attacks on Zelensky drew backlash from other House Republicans, including House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) — whose troubles with Cawthorn were just beginning.
All hell broke loose several weeks later when Cawthorn described during a podcast interview what he called the “sexual perversion that goes on in Washington,” including moments when he’d allegedly been invited to orgies and also witnessed people doing cocaine.
The ensuing flood of well-timed leaks soon made it clear that Cawthorn had crossed the line, with said flood beginning with photos of the GOP lawmaker in lingerie being leaked to Politico.
Then the right zeroed in on Cawthorn’s involvement in a shady cryptocurrency venture with the “Let’s Go Brandon” coin: The Washington Examiner published a report accusing the GOP lawmaker of potential insider trading, prompting Tillis, who had already endorsed one of Cawthorn’s opponents at that point, to demand the House open an ethics investigation into his fellow North Carolina Republican.
More salacious content of Cawthorn got leaked online, including videos of a man apparently putting his hand on the lawmaker’s crotch and a nude Cawthorn seeming to hump a man’s head as an apparent goof.
Cawthorn said that the video was just him “being crass” with a cousin.
“This video is just stupid locker room talk between two cousins that grew up like brothers,” he said in a statement.
Cawthorn also had several run-ins with law enforcement over the past few months: He was charged with driving with a revoked license in March, and he received a citation last month for bringing a loaded gun to an airport security checkpoint — the second time he had done so since 2021.
Throughout all the scandal, Cawthorn remained defiant against what he called the “coordinated drip campaign” by “the North Carolina political establishment.”
Trump ultimately threw Cawthorn a lifeline on the eve of the North Carolina primary, stating on his Twitter knockoff that the GOP lawmaker only “made some foolish mistakes, which I don’t believe he’ll make again” and therefore deserved a “second chance.”
The Cawthorn saga was arguably just as damning for the GOP as it was for the lawmaker himself, showing what it took for the party to decide to ferociously crush one of its own: not bringing guns to an airport, not repeatedly lying about one’s own history, and not cheering on an insurrection. Other members have spoken at white nationalist conferences without facing a party-backed primary challenge.
But claims of witnessing fellow elected Republicans at orgies were apparently, in 2022, still a red line.
It remains to be seen how Cawthorn will choose to spend his lame-duck months in the House.