The Republican nominee to replace White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows in Congress will be fiscally conservative, pro-Trump, anti-abortion and a hard-liner on immigration. Whether that Republican will be a young upstart or a longtime businesswoman gets decided Tuesday in the GOP runoff for the 11th District in western North Carolina.
“Ideologically, they’re carbon copies of each other but stylistically, they are complete opposites,” said Chris Cooper, a political science professor at Western Carolina University.
Real estate agent and party activist Lynda Bennett, 62, had Meadows’ endorsement and support from such groups as the tea party-linked House Freedom Action. But in a 12-candidate primary on March 3, she ended up about 7 points short of the 30 percent needed to secure the nomination outright. That put her in a runoff with the second-place finisher, Madison Cawthorn, who got 20 percent.
Cawthorn, 24, is a real estate investor and motivational speaker who survived a near-fatal car crash and now uses a wheelchair. Campaigning during the coronavirus pandemic, he has embraced social media and set himself apart from Bennett as a youthful outsider.
Runoff turnout is expected to be low, and 30 percent of early voters who have cast ballots so far are from Cawthorn’s home county of Henderson, according to the North Carolina State Board of Elections. Bennett’s home county of Haywood lags behind.
“The curiosity right now is, are we going to have 10,000 people come out on Election Day, or we have 24,000 people coming on Election Day?” Cawthorn said in an interview with CQ Roll Call.
Cawthorn was a surprise second-place finisher in the primary, according to Cooper, outperforming state Sen. Jim Davis, who got 19 percent.
Meadows announced in March he was quitting in the middle of his fourth term to become President Donald Trump’s chief of staff.
Meadows was accused of tipping off Bennett, a friend of his wife’s, to the opening up of this recently redrawn but likely Republican seat. Bennett announced her candidacy just hours after Meadows first shared the news of his retirement, which came roughly 31 hours before the deadline to get on the ballot.
The businesswoman, who also has endorsements from Trump, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, appears to have kept a lower profile during the runoff, hasn’t agreed to a debate, and has been holding smaller events with constituents, Cooper said.
As the pandemic raged, both candidates adapted to the changing landscape. Bennett attended events when restrictions permitted, and put out targeted digital and television ads, said Courtney Alexander, a communications consultant for the Bennett campaign.
“Looking at ways to be creative in campaigning, that’s been something that Lynda has been focused on,” she said.
Cawthorn, who turns 25 in August, turned to Facebook, holding live broadcasts in which potential voters could interact with him, he said.
Since the primary, the House Freedom Fund, which is the political arm of the hard-line conservative Freedom Caucus that Meadows once led, and House Freedom Action have spent nearly $657,000 to help Bennett. Protect Freedom PAC spent $530,000 on behalf of Cawthorn, airing an ad saying Bennett was a “Never Trumper” in 2016.
Through June 3, Bennett’s campaign had raised about $447,000, including $80,000 of her own money, while Cawthorn raised $563,000, including $361,000 from a personal loan.
Cawthorn’s money came from a combination of funds from a stock market portfolio started at a young age, and money received in an insurance settlement after the car crash, though he says much of that money went to pay significant medical bills. The ordeal dramatically changed the trajectory of his life and helped him empathize with people who feel disenfranchised, he said.
“I’m very thankful that I was in that position: I had the ability to be able to loan myself that money because, again, I really believe in this cause that we’re fighting for,” he said.
Democratic nominee Moe Davis, a retired Air Force colonel and former chief prosecutor at Guantanamo Bay, said he is ready for the uphill battle once the GOP runoff is settled.
He sees a path to victory, and points to Democrat Heath Schuler, who held an earlier version of the 11th District seat and opted to retire in 2012 when the district was redrawn to skew more Republican. Trump carried the seat by 29 points, and Meadows won four elections here, all by double digits.
Last year, court-ordered redistricting led to more of the liberal-leaning area of Asheville being added to the district. Trump would still have won the seat, albeit by a reduced by 17 points, according to calculations by Daily Kos Elections.
Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the 11th District general election Solid Republican.
Davis, the Democratic nominee, said his ability to speak on veterans’ issues and focus on improving broadband access, health care and access to education, instead of more ideological issues such as gun and abortion rights, will help him win over moderate voters.
“What I can do to win this district is focus on the issues that matter to a day-to-day basis,” he said.