Madison Cawthorn wants to be the AOC of the GOP

'She's definitely the vanguard for her party right now,' the 25-year-old congressional candidate says of AOC, 'and that's something I want to be for the Republican Party'

If Madison Cawthorn wins his bid to represent North Carolina’s 11th district in November, he will become the youngest congressman to serve in at least several decades. The Republican upstart, who turned 25 last month, came virtually out of nowhere to eke out a second-place finish in the state’s March primary only to then crush his opponent, Lynda Bennett — who had the backing of President Donald Trump — by more than 30 points in the June runoff election.

Cawthorn, who last week was added to the National Republican Congressional Committee’s “Young Guns” program, is now viewed as a rising star within the GOP, having earned a personal congratulations from Trump for his primary win. In late July, Cawthorn met the president at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, alongside former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, who most recently held the seat Cawthorn is seeking to fill. “I’ll see you tomorrow,” Trump told Cawthorn before departing, alluding to a tête-à-tête the two would have at the White House the next day.

Cawthorn was invited to address the Republican National Convention in late August. During his speech on the third night of the convention, the camera zoomed out to show him seated in a wheelchair as he spoke about his effort to overcome adversity and empower himself after a near-fatal car accident six years ago left him paralyzed from the waist down.

“I say to Americans who love our country, young and old, be a radical for freedom, be a radical for liberty, and be a radical for our republic, for which I stand,” Cawthorn concluded, rendering his statement literal by lifting himself, with the aid of a walker, out of his wheelchair and onto his feet.

But as Cawthorn’s profile has risen, his polished image has accrued some blemishes. He has come under scrutiny for, among other things, a recently unearthed Instagram post from July 2017, in which he appeared to glorify Adolf Hitler in a series of photos taken during a visit with his brother to the Eagle’s Nest, the site that once served as Hitler’s mountain chalet. 

“The vacation house of the Führer,” Cawthorn wrote in a caption accompanying the post that many viewed as tone-deaf at best and virulently antisemitic at worst. “Seeing the Eagles Nest has been on my bucket list for awhile, it did not disappoint. Strange to hear so many laughs and share such a good time with my brother where only 79 years ago a supreme evil shared laughs and good times with his compatriots.”

In a rare interview with a news outlet from outside his district, Cawthorn sought to defend himself against accusations of antisemitism, while acknowledging that the social media caption could have been written differently. 

“I can see how, specifically when I used the terminology ‘Führer,’ instead of just saying ‘Hitler’ — I can see how a lot of people might have thought that was kind of a term of reverence,” Cawthorn said in a phone interview with Jewish Insider from his home in Henderson, a small city in his district. “But to me, it was just kind of like calling Caesar, Julius Caesar, or calling Genghis, you know, Genghis Khan.”

Cawthorn continued: “I definitely think that Julius Caesar and Genghis Khan are people who committed awful atrocities. I’m definitely not honoring those things. If I could go back, I might actually change using that terminology just because I didn’t put myself in the shoes of someone who comes from a Jewish background or a Jewish culture. I wish I’d had more empathy in that situation. But the reason I went there — it was in celebration. The fact that I am an American — and I’m a disabled man that Hitler would have had killed — and also an American who’s speaking English rolling over his vacation home, and I’m going up to a bar on the top story of it, and I’m sitting there enjoying time laughing with my brother in English — I think it was it was a celebration of our victory, our triumph over this supreme evil.”

Madison Cawthorn with his fiancee, Cristina Bayardelle. (Courtesy)

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Despite the recent campaign setbacks, Cawthorn is considered the favorite to win in the conservative district, where he faces Democratic candidate Morris Davis, a retired U.S. Air Force colonel, in the race to fill the seat left vacant by former Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC).

“I’m not focused on tearing down statues. I’m not focused on gender reassignment surgery. I’m not focused on incremental GDP growth,” said Cawthorn, who believes that his message will resonate with voters. “I’m focused on dining room politics, what matters to a young family sitting around their tables with their kids.”

Cawthorn grew up in the district, where he was home-schooled. He attended Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, Va., but did not graduate. 

Until recently, the district was one of the most Republican in the state. It was redrawn last year to include all of Asheville, a liberal redoubt, making it more competitive for Democrats but still deeply red. Internal polling from Davis’s campaign puts him, at 42%, just two points behind Cawthorn, while a separate poll from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee puts him 5 points behind his opponent. Davis has raised nearly $500,000, according to the latest filings from the Federal Election Commission, while Cawthorn has pulled in around $441,000 and loaned himself $361,000.

“We believe the more people learn about both of us, the more likely I will win,” Davis said in a statement to JI, adding: “Those who do their homework will discover that my opponent is the least-qualified candidate for Congress in the country. With little formal education and having never held a full-time job, he has a resume that wouldn’t qualify for most entry-level positions at any company.”

Still, political scientists say that Cawthorn — who describes himself as the proprietor of a real estate investment company on his campaign website — will likely prevail in a race that has become increasingly nasty as the two candidates have battled it out in recent debates.

“There’s no doubt that Madison Cawthorn is the favorite in this race,” said Chris Cooper, a professor of political science at Western Carolina University who specializes in state and local politics. “Of course, the events of the last few months, and Cawthorn’s Instagram feed, threw things into question for a while, but since then, Davis has had his own social media snafus that have evened the playing field.”

Recently, Davis got into trouble for a resurfaced tweet that was typical of his aggressive campaign rhetoric. “Screw they go low, we go high bullsh*t,” he wrote last September. “When @NCGOP extremists go low, we stomp their scrawny pasty necks with our heels and once you hear the sound of a crisp snap you grind your heel hard and twist it slowly side to side for good measure. He needs to know who whupped his ass.”

Cawthorn, for his part, was quick to point out that his spine had actually been broken in a car accident. “He gets into some really dark stuff,” Cawthorn said of his Democratic opponent.

***

In the interview, Cawthorn expressed a strong desire to build relationships with the Jewish community in his district and beyond. He praised a political role model, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas, who is paralyzed from the waist down and uses a wheelchair, for receiving the Friends of Zion award on a recent trip to Jerusalem. “That’s a lifetime goal,” Cawthorn said. 

“I want to advocate,” Cawthorn said, “for a boom in prosperity and population within the Jewish community just because I think it’s awful — it is one of the saddest facts I know — that the population of Jews on the planet is less now than it was before the Holocaust. I mean, the fact that it still has not recovered, I think, is just awful.” 

The young candidate positioned himself as fervently pro-Israel, assuring JI that he would push for a “stronger Zionist state” should he be elected to the House. Cawthorn reserved harsh criticism for the Boycott, Sanctions and Divestment movement, which he characterized as “a hate organization” and an “antisemitic indoctrination movement.”

“There are antisemites on the Republican side, to be sure, and I think they should be called out as well, but I think it’s definitely coming from the left predominantly,” Cawthorn said, while laying out actions he will take to address antisemitism if elected to Congress. “A step I can actually take is, one, I definitely vow to never support, with my dollars or with an endorsement, any candidate or any politician who is antisemitic,” he said, naming only Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) on his list of offending politicians. “And also, I would never cosponsor a bill with anyone who is antisemitic or holds anti-Zionist beliefs.”

(Read Cawthorn’s complete answers to JI’s candidate questionnaire here.)

In terms of local outreach, Cawthorn stated his intention to visit some synagogues in the area with his friend and campaign organizational director Andrew Knapp, who is Jewish. “I’m really, really looking forward to that,” Cawthorn told JI. “I’ve never been to a synagogue inside of my district.”

Cawthorn said he received a good education on Jewish identity and culture from conversations with Knapp, who declined to comment on the record for this article but who has defended the candidate against accusations of antisemitism. 

“I’ve learned a lot — that the Jewish community is just really, mainly a cultural community,” Cawthorn said. “It’s not so much religious. And then, I also learned pretty heavily that there’s a difference between Judaism and Zionism. And, you know, I think I’ve really gotten a lot of insight as to why a lot of Jews vote Democrat.”

When asked to elaborate on his last point, Cawthorn adopted a somewhat wary tone. “I hope I’m not offending you or anything,” he said. “But I think a lot of Jews fail to put their money where their mouth is. I think a lot of Jews, you know, they want to support Israel. But at the end of the day, they support a party who is advocating for the BDS movement, who advocates for a weaker Israel, who doesn’t want us to have a military partnership, wants to weaken our position in the region, weaken the qualitative military edge that they have, and at the end of the day, if every other country that wants to destroy Israel laid their arms down tomorrow, there’d be peace. But if the Jews laid their arms down tomorrow, there would be mass genocide. And so I can tell you who’s on the right side of history and who’s not. The Democrats aren’t on the right side of history.”

But why would that explain, true or not, why American Jews favor Democrats?

He tried again: “A lot of Jews, I’ve found, they don’t have anything to do with Israel,” he said. “They just want to send their kids to school, they want to live a happy life, they want to make more money. The American dream. A normal person. But then, when Trump decides to move the embassy — which doesn’t affect them in any way because they very rarely ever go to Israel — but Trump decides to move the embassy and then they have to be afraid that there’s going to be a stabbing attack at their kids’ school, they have to be afraid that there’s going to be a firebombing at the synagogue they go to. And so, I can see why sometimes maybe they don’t even want to support Republicans because they don’t really want to support the Jewish state.”

Congressional candidate Madison Cawthorn at a recent campaign event. (Courtesy)

Cawthorn — who is Christian and considers himself an “entity of God, as all Christians should” — described his first and only trip to Israel in 2018 as a spiritual journey. “It was a religious expedition, I would say, to go see all these Bible stories I’ve heard from a very young age, to go see the places that are connected with them,” said Cawthorn, who was coincidentally in Israel during the ceremony relocating the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

“The Middle East is a major hotbed and I think it will continue to be for the rest of history, and I think the biggest reason for that is the existence of the Israeli state, I think, causes a lot of tensions in the area,” he said. “So I definitely wanted to go put my eyes on it.”

The trip, Cawthorn said, was illuminating. “It definitely changed my perspective of the whole situation just because, I always think of the Palestinians as being very aggressive toward the Israelis,” he said. “But I got to meet a good number of Palestinians while there thanks to my tour guide — he definitely put us in cool situations where we could meet a lot of diverse cultures. But when we were there, it was very clear to me that a lot of the people were just good people, but that their leaders were whipping them up into an aggressive state, which is unfortunate. So when it comes to my beliefs with Palestinians, I could see a two-state solution probably being a great solution to the situation. I think the only way that we could agree to that is, you know, I think the United States would act as an incredible moderator. But I think that the two parties that should be actually affected by it should be the ones who are making the decisions.”

***

Though Cawthorn did not earn Trump’s imprimatur during the primary, he casts himself as a strong supporter of the president’s goals, particularly on foreign policy. “It’s America’s job to lead and we should take that as a duty,” he said, endorsing Trump’s decision to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal and the targeted killing of Iranian Gen. Qassim Soleimani. “The validity of the Iranians as a state is, I think, in question,” said Cawthorn. “I think they should be labeled a terrorist organization.”

He was also quick to applaud the Trump administration’s role in brokering peace deals between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, made official during the recent signing ceremony at the White House known as the Abraham Accords. “I think these Abraham Accords are historic,” Cawthorn said. “You know, there actually has not been a peace deal in the Middle East in my entire lifetime. Since I’ve been alive, there’s never been any form of a peace deal, which I think was pretty incredible.”

Cawthorn, whose policy priorities include deregulating healthcare and making infrastructural improvements to broadband, entered the race for Meadows’s seat because he saw, as he put it, “a deficit of courage in the Republican Party.” 

“I think it was evidently on display when we took the House and the Senate and the presidency,” he said. “We had a lot of entrenched career politicians who did not seem to be serving anyone but themselves. I really appreciated the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. But aside from that, I really can’t point to any major pieces of legislation or major improvements I saw made that was really in Congress’s court. I think the president did a really great job of negotiating new trade deals and what he’s accomplished. But I just thought the Republicans were often cowardly, and they really did not represent the Republican Party that I believe in and that I represent.”

Despite the fighting words, Cawthorn declined to name which Republicans he had in mind. “Oh, no, I don’t care to name any right at this point,” he said. “We’ll see if they make it through their reelections.”

Cawthorn, of course, is more focused on his own campaign at the moment, as he has sought to defend himself not only against allegations of antisemitism but also accusations of sexual impropriety and for associating with an acronym as well as a symbol used by white nationalists. He also seems to have created a false impression that his plan to attend the U.S. Naval Academy was derailed by his crash when, in fact, he admitted in a sworn deposition that he had been rejected by the academy before the accident, according to an investigation by AVL Watchdog

In a recent debate, Cawthorn denied allegations of sexual impropriety, including forcible kissing and unwanted touching reported by the Christian evangelical news magazine World. “I have never done anything sexually inappropriate in my life,” he said. 

He scoffed at the notion that he has been tipping his hat to white nationalists in naming his real estate company SPQR Holdings and in conducting video interviews with a Betsy Ross flag displayed behind him. SPQR is an acronym referring to the Roman Republic and, in translation from Latin to English, means “the Senate and the Roman people.” Both the acronym and the flag have been appropriated by white nationalists, but Cawthorn denied that he was involved in such behavior.

“To me, SPQR is harkening back to where we really got the influence for our country, which was the Roman Republic,” he said. “And the fact that once the Roman Republic fell, it took 2,000 years for something to be created like it again, and I don’t want that to happen. So to use the term SPQR, which my friends and I use very often, I think, is — it’s a way of saying, ‘hey, we need to safeguard this republic because it’s special,’ and we saw the decay and the fall from greatness that happened after the empire was formed.”

As for the Betsy Ross flag: “I mean, that just makes me say, ‘Come on!’” Cawthorn said, aggravated by the notion that displaying it was anything but a patriotic gesture. “It’s a harkening back to the founding of our country, probably one of the greatest generations that ever lived,” he said. “It frustrates me that we live in this cancel culture where you have to hate everything and just be vitriolic against everything.”

“I think I represent probably the least racist generation in the world,” he added. “It’s sad, it’s sad. But yes, I completely denounce any racism, I think it’s awful. I think that people who are white nationalists or believe in a white ethnostate, I think those people are pretty pathetic. My fiancée, she’s mixed race, and so it’s frustrating to say the least.”

Cawthorn also disavowed QAnon, whose adherents believe in a clandestine group of Satanist pedophiles who control the world. A number of first-time Republican candidates around the country have expressed their belief in the baseless conspiracy theory, but Cawthorn sought to distance himself from the movement.

“I did not hear about QAnon until after a reporter asked me about it,” he said. “I really just believe that QAnon is — it’s a bunch of conspiracy theories, and I think there’s a lot of people who are kind of — I would define them kind of as humanists, who don’t believe in a higher power — I think they really kind of buy into these these conspiracy theories because they think that there has to be some human plot behind everything when, at the end of the day, I think that our existence serves a greater power that we can’t even understand. And so, if something might look like a plot, I think it might just kind of be a design.”

***

If elected, Cawthorn would be five years younger than the youngest current member of Congress, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY). He said he feels an affinity with his ideological opponent, if only because of her ability to bend her party’s platform in the direction of her own beliefs.

“I see myself as akin to her in a lot of ways,” Cawthorn said. “I think that most of her policies and ideologies are pretty asinine, but I will tell you that the way she goes about executing them, I think, is incredible. I think it’s very effective. I think that’s something that Republicans need to learn from, just because she is influencing an entire generation. I mean, she’s doing a great job of it, too. And I’m sure her and I will get along when I get to Congress, but I doubt we will get along well on the House floor, just because we have very different political beliefs.”

“She’s definitely the vanguard for her party right now,” Cawthorn added, “and that’s something I want to be for the Republican Party.”

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