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Don’t Read Too Much Into Madison Cawthorn’s Defeat

The GOP isn’t turning the corner.
by Jim Swift
May 18, 2022
Don’t Read Too Much Into Madison Cawthorn’s Defeat
Rep. Madison Cawthorn (NC-11) speaks to the crowd at the Hilton Anatole Hotel in Dallas, Texas on Friday, July 9, 2021. (Photo by Emil Lippe for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Come next January, Democrats won’t have Madison Cawthorn to kick around anymore. The freshman North Carolina congressman lost his primary tonight in a close race—33 to 32 percent, as of this writing—to a state senator.

During his time in Congress, Cawthorn went out of his way to be a jerk. If you read the recent Politico profile, you might have a modicum of sympathy. Like the car crash that left him in a wheelchair, his short stint in the House of Representatives may well transform the rest of his life.

He always wanted to be a member of Congress. Why he did is anyone’s guess. But he got there. And once he did, he learned something important: It’s a shitty job.

Despite his lackluster CV—understandable, since he is one of the youngest individuals ever to serve in Congress—and his critics, Cawthorn made the most of his brief tenure, especially if you consider his actual goals: He was not interested in legislating. His interest was in leading the news cycle—and boy, did he succeed.

There’s no need here to get into all the many Cawthorn scandals and stupidities, but the general trend is not great. If you get caught trying to bring a loaded handgun onto an airplane not once but twice, something has come out of balance in your soul. Either you are pushing the performance too far or something is deeply wrong.

Whether his antics were deliberate provocations, the products of an unwell mind, or some combination, the number of voters who wanted a change was big enough that he’s now on his way out.

Was there, as several commentators have suggested, a “conspiracy” against Cawthorn—a shadowy plot by GOP officials upset by the young representative’s revelation of supposed orgies and drug use among congressional Republicans? Hardly.

Yes, his own party’s leadership had enough of his behavior and so rejected him. But recall that Cawthorn himself once tried to reject his own voters: At one point he wanted to change his congressional district to root out “Never Trumpers.” The vicissitudes of redistricting actually lowered his electoral chances in his adopted district, and his 11th District voters didn’t like being cast aside by their young star, even if he claimed he was only doing it to serve the MAGA cause.

In response to these pressures, Cawthorn came back to his district to run again. And what did he find back home? A ton of challengers.


And what of the notion that Cawthorn’s loss represents a step away from Trumpism and a step toward the restoration of a kind of more sane, more sober Republican party—as if his defeat is nature healing itself?

Even if Trump did back the loser in this race, it is still very much his party. Cawthorn’s volatile combination of callowness and callousness, not to mention his unpredictability, so alienated him from voters that even Trump couldn’t redeem him in their eyes. That doesn’t mean, though, that Cawthorn’s loss is the come-to-Jesus moment that the party desperately needs. Don’t get your hopes up.

As for soon-to-be-former Rep. Cawthorn, odds are that some conservative outlet—on cable? talk radio? the internet?—will quickly offer him a job, hoping to take advantage of his notoriety and his half a million Twitter followers. But please forgive me for hoping that the young man will take some time off from politics, and maybe even consider therapy.

If Cawthorn ends up actually facing his demons, then at least one meaningful thing will have resulted from his defeat.

Jim Swift

Jim Swift is a senior editor at The Bulwark.