By Melanie Zanona, Manu Raju and Alex Rogers, CNN
Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina is throwing his weight behind a primary opponent to freshman Rep. Madison Cawthorn — an extraordinary broadside against a fellow Republican from his home state, as internal frustration with the controversial MAGA firebrand reaches a boiling point.
“It comes down to focus on the district, producing results for the district, and in my opinion, Mr. Cawthorn hasn’t demonstrated much in the way of results over the last 18 months,” Tillis told CNN, describing why he is backing state Sen. Chuck Edwards in his primary against Cawthorn.
And Tillis may not be alone. Other GOP lawmakers who are at their wits’ end with Cawthorn are considering endorsing one of his primary foes, according to multiple sources familiar with the discussions, amid growing concerns that the North Carolina Republican is dragging down the entire party with his problematic behavior. The two most powerful North Carolina Republicans in the state legislature — Senate leader Phil Berger and House speaker Tim Moore — are headlining a fundraiser for Edwards on Thursday, according to the Edwards campaign.
It’s the latest sign of turmoil for the 26-year-old, who has angered and annoyed a wide swath of his colleagues with a steady stream of controversial antics and attempts to play political kingmaker in North Carolina and beyond. Most recently, Cawthorn sparked an uproar after claiming on a podcast that people in Washington have invited him to participate in orgies and used cocaine in front of him. Even fellow members of the House Freedom Caucus, a far-right crew with a penchant for controversy, have turned on Cawthorn: They’ve floated the idea of kicking him out of the group if he didn’t clarify his wild accusations, according to GOP sources, though such a step seems unlikely.
Amid complaints from members, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy hauled Cawthorn into his office Wednesday morning and pressed him on the unsettling allegations, which he said Cawthorn admitted were untrue, and told the freshman lawmaker he needs to get his act together or else he could face internal consequences.
“He’s got to turn himself around,” McCarthy told reporters. “I just told him he’s lost my trust, and he’s going to have to earn it back. I laid out everything I find that’s unbecoming. … He’s got a lot of members upset. You can’t just make statements out there.”
Cawthorn declined to answer questions from CNN in the Capitol about the meeting or his allegations and said to contact his office. His office did not return multiple requests for comment.
On Thursday, Cawthorn tweeted out a video defending himself and blaming the left and the media for attacking him.
“I’m not going anywhere,” he wrote.
Many Republicans — who say Cawthorn has rebuffed repeated attempts to show him the ropes — think he is more interested in generating headlines than serious legislating and has alienated himself in the House GOP as a result. Some Republicans worry that Cawthorn and a handful of other vocal fringe members in the party are hurting the GOP brand and creating an unnecessary and unwelcome distraction in their quest to win back the majority.
Retiring Sen. Richard Burr — the senior GOP senator from North Carolina — told CNN he won’t be getting involved in Cawthorn’s primary, but added: “On any given day, he’s an embarrassment.”
Rep. Don Bacon of Nebraska, who represents a district won by President Joe Biden, said Cawthorn’s bizarre allegations about sex acts and drug use were “terrible” and that he shares “the anger of my colleagues.”
And Rep. Kelly Armstrong of North Dakota told CNN that instead of an angel and devil on Cawthorn’s shoulder, “in Madison’s case it’s Lloyd Christmas on one shoulder and Harry Dunne on the other shoulder” — a reference to the main characters in the movie “Dumb and Dumber.”
“People are flat pissed off,” Armstrong added.
The public and private broadsides illustrate how Cawthorn, who was once seen as a rising star inside the GOP, has quickly become persona non grata inside his own party. But McCarthy’s past efforts to rein in the fringe members inside his conference haven’t worked, and it’s unclear if the push to defeat Cawthorn in North Carolina will fare any better. The congressman is facing at least five Republican candidates in his primary, who could split the vote against him, and needs to earn just 30 percent of the vote to avoid a runoff election.
Cawthorn’s critics acknowledge that any GOP attempts to defeat or damage Cawthorn in a primary could also backfire: Cawthorn has built a brand as an anti-establishment Republican, and the backlash from his colleagues may only boost his bona fides on the far right. Further complicating things, Cawthorn has the ear of former President Donald Trump, who regrets not backing Cawthorn’s initial bid for Congress. (In the 2020 GOP primary runoff election, Trump endorsed Lynda Bennett, White House chief of staff Mark Meadows’ pick to take his old House seat.)
Tillis, however, appears unfazed by the prospect of going up against a congressman beloved by Trump.
“I’m gonna do my best to defer to the people in his district to make that choice,” Tillis said. But he added that he believes voters will think highly of Edwards compared to Cawthorn, “both in terms of temperament and a focus on getting things done.”
Controversies in Congress
Cawthorn’s cocaine and orgy allegations sparked a furor during a closed-door party meeting Tuesday, according to sources in the room, though he was not present during the gathering. Several enraged Republicans stood up and raised concern over Cawthorn’s inflammatory remarks, saying that if his allegations are true, then he needs to name names because otherwise it unfairly stains the entire institution.
Others complained that they are getting questions from concerned constituents — and worried spouses — about whether members of Congress were indeed participating in orgies and hard-core drug use.
In response to the string of closed-door complaints, McCarthy, House Minority Whip Steve Scalise and Rep. Mike Johnson of Louisiana — who was formally assigned to mentor Cawthorn at the start of Congress — huddled with Cawthorn for 30 minutes in the GOP leader’s office Wednesday morning. During that meeting, sources said McCarthy explained to Cawthorn that he can’t just be a social media influencer, implored him to take his job as a congressman seriously, pressed him to issue a public apology for his most recent remarks, and warned Cawthorn that if he didn’t change his behavior, there could be consequences. They ended the meeting by telling Cawthorn the ball is now in his court.
When pressed by reporters on whether Cawthorn might lose his committee assignments, McCarthy said: “There’s a lot of different things that can happen.” Aside from losing his committee seats, he could also be assigned to less desirable ones next year, sources said.
Just two weeks ago, GOP lawmakers were furious with Cawthorn for a different reason: he called Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky a “thug” and the Ukrainian government “evil” — comments that were picked up by Russian state media amid its brutal assault on Ukraine.
During his short tenure, Cawthorn has racked up a remarkably long list of eye-popping controversies: he brought a congressional candidate onto the House floor, which is against the rules, and falsely told people that the candidate was a staffer; he was seen cleaning his gun in the middle of a virtual hearing on veterans’ health; he got busted for driving on a suspended license; and he was hit with an ethics complaint after getting into a verbal altercation with GOP Rep. David McKinley on the House floor, to name a few.
“We were shocked and disappointed that he yet again made some bizarre comment,” said Michele Woodhouse, another GOP primary candidate against Cawthorn, about her opponent’s remarks regarding cocaine and orgies in Washington. “It’s yet again another reason why he’s unelectable in the 11th congressional district.”
Aside from Johnson, other members who came to Congress with big platforms have tried to informally mentor Cawthorn about turning that notoriety into success, sources said. Cawthorn was also purposely placed on the House Education and Labor Committee with the hopes that ranking member Rep. Virginia Foxx, a veteran North Carolina Republican, would take him under her wings. But those entreaties haven’t worked.
Of course, Cawthorn isn’t the only controversial member in the GOP ranks: Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and Paul Gosar of Arizona, for example, both recently addressed a conference organized by a White nationalist, and received little more than a verbal rebuke from their leaders and colleagues.
But the House GOP appears the most fed up with Cawthorn, who has a knack for snatching up the spotlight and drawing unwanted attention to his party. Republicans were especially disturbed by the cocaine and orgy allegations because it implicated themselves.
Other Republicans, however, said they have some level of sympathy for Cawthorn, who was paralyzed in a car accident and is getting divorced after a short marriage, and worry about the 26-year-old’s well-being.
But McCarthy, who got his start in politics at a young age and once chaired the Young Republican National Federation, said Cawthorn’s age is no excuse for bad behavior.
“It doesn’t matter. The Constitution gives you the age when you can serve in Congress,” McCarthy told reporters. “But when you’re in Congress, you should respect the institution, and you should focus on the work that you should do.”
Backlash back home
Cawthorn is facing a number of GOP candidates including Edwards, Woodhouse, Bruce O’Connell, Rod Honeycutt, Matthew Burril and Wendy Nevarez. His opponents are trying to take advantage of his numerous controversies, including his speech on January 6, 2021, urging those at Trump’s “Save America” rally to contest the election.
Retired Henderson County sheriff George Erwin Jr., a former early supporter of Cawthorn’s, dropped the congressman after the pro-Trump mob’s attack on the Capitol. Erwin has since thrown his support behind Honeycutt, a retired Army colonel.
Republican challengers are also lambasting his decision to leave the district in November, before changing his mind once the final maps were created. Woodhouse, the former GOP chair of the district, said that Cawthorn “abandoned” the district and now is asking his constituents to “settle for being his second choice.”
But some Republicans in the state say that if they don’t coalesce behind one candidate, Cawthorn will be able to clear the primary field and win reelection.
“That’s the problem right now,” said unaffiliated North Carolina GOP strategist Jim Blaine, a former top staffer for state Senate president Phil Berger. “I think if the election was a binary choice between Chuck Edwards and Madison Cawthorn, Chuck Edwards would beat Madison Cawthorn.”
“The problem is there are six other candidates … in that race who are trying to be the anti-Cawthorn,” he added.
This story has been updated with additional developments Thursday.
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