Moe Davis is banking on a redrawn map to win a bitter North Carolina contest

The retired Air Force colonel is going up against 25-year-old Republican Madison Cawthorn in the race to succeed former Rep. Mark Meadows

Moe Davis had no intention of running for Congress when he retired from his position as an administrative law judge in the U.S. Department of Labor in the spring of 2019, and moved with his wife to the Blue Ridge Mountains of western North Carolina. The former Air Force colonel and military prosecutor, now mounting his first bid for public office, says he had planned to spend his days in leisure, while keeping himself moderately busy with some contract work as well as a bit of legal writing.

“If I had any notion of running, I wouldn’t have put all my suits in long-term storage,” Davis, 62, quipped in a recent phone interview with Jewish Insider from his newly constructed home in Asheville. “It was a mathematical impossibility for a Democrat to compete.”

That may no longer be the case. Last year, North Carolina’s 11th congressional district was redrawn to include all of Asheville, a liberal stronghold in an otherwise conservative portion of the state. The new, court-ordered map gives Democrats a glimmer of hope that they can claim the seat this cycle, though experts say Republicans still have an advantage in the historically red district. 

Nevertheless, Davis saw an opportunity. He entered the race in December 2019 thinking he would be challenging former Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC), who three months later vacated the seat to become President Donald Trump’s chief of staff. Davis is now competing against Madison Cawthorn, a 25-year-old political upstart who won his June runoff election by more than 30 percentage points. 

Cawthorn would be the youngest member of Congress if he is elected and is seen by Republican leadership as a rising star with a compelling personal story. The North Carolina native, who uses a wheelchair, was paralyzed from the waist down in a near-fatal car accident six years ago — an incident he recounted during his speech at the Republican National Convention in late August.

Still, Cawthorn’s campaign has hit some snags in recent months as some of his past social media comments — including an Instagram post in which he referred to Adolf Hitler as “the Führer” — have surfaced. Whether such remarks — which Cawthorn said he “might actually change” if he could go back — will hinder the Republican’s prospects remains to be seen, but Davis said he likes his chances either way as he looks to November.

Recent polling suggests Davis may have reason to be optimistic. An internal poll, conducted in mid-July, put Davis at 42%, just two points behind his opponent and firmly within the margin of error. “With NC-11 being a red-leaning district, we were happy that the race was already a statistical tie,” Graeme McGufficke, Davis’s campaign manager, told JI in an email. A follow-up poll by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee was less encouraging, but still showed a tight race, giving Cawthorn, at 46%, a five-point lead over Davis. 

The latest filings from the Federal Election Commission also reflect a competitive battle: Davis has pulled in nearly $500,000, while Cawthorn has raised approximately $442,000 and loaned himself $361,000.

Mark Gibney, a professor of political science at the University of North Carolina at Asheville, acknowledged that Davis may be the underdog but said that the Democratic challenger could reasonably pull off an upset given his opponent’s past blunders. “I think he at least has a fighting chance,” Gibney told JI, adding that Davis has mounted “one of the most aggressive campaigns I’ve seen a Democrat run.”

The dynamic has become increasingly vitriolic in recent weeks as the two candidates have traded barbs in debates and interviews with regional media outlets, leading one observer to characterize the 11th district contest as the “ugliest race in North Carolina.” 

Moe Davis stumping
Moe Davis meets with constituents during a campaign stop. (Courtesy)

Though Cawthorn’s online comments have drawn the most national attention, Davis has also come under scrutiny for some of his past Twitter messages. 

“Screw they go low, we go high bullsh*t,” Davis wrote in one resurfaced tweet from September 2019. “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.” 

In conversation with JI, Davis defended his wording, which has aged poorly given that his opponent is paralyzed, while adding that he has made efforts to soften his rhetoric since deciding to run for Congress. 

“When I was in the military, I used the same kind of language,” said Davis, who once likened Guantanamo Bay prisoners to vampires who would melt when dragged into the sunlight. “I know that I’ve transitioned to a different field,” he said, “and I think I’ve been more judicious.”

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While Cawthorn has made efforts to characterize Davis as a carpetbagger capitalizing on a vacant congressional seat, Davis emphasizes that he is also a North Carolina native whose trajectory led him away from the state for some time. He grew up in Shelby, about an hour east of Asheville, attended Appalachian State University as an undergraduate and got his law degree from North Carolina Central University.

Davis joined the Air Force in the early 1980s and worked his way up to colonel, during which time he served as the chief military prosecutor at Guantanamo Bay, whose job was to prosecute Al-Qaeda terror suspects. He quit in protest after refusing to use evidence obtained by torture.

Davis’s decision to stand up for his principles wasn’t an easy one, according to Amos Guiora, a retired lieutenant colonel in the Israel Defense Forces who met Davis nearly 20 years ago when the candidate was the commander of the Air Force Judge Advocate General’s School in Alabama. 

“Moe got blasted for being unpatriotic,” said Guiora, now a law professor at the University of Utah who specializes in counterterrorism. “He did exactly what he said he would do,” added Guiora, who endorsed Davis in January. “I’ve been around the block more than once, and it’s rare to find someone who actually does exactly what he says he’ll do.”

Davis retired from the military in 2008, worked for a time as a TV commentator and then became a Labor Department judge in 2015. He retired from that position last year. 

Davis casts himself as the more experienced and responsible candidate in the race, pointing out that Cawthorn can often be seen campaigning without a mask as the novel coronavirus continues to spread. 

“If you look around the country, I don’t know anyone that’s less qualified to serve in Congress than Madison Cawthorn,” Davis said of his opponent, a college dropout who describes himself as the owner of a real estate investment company on his campaign website. “He’s got no education, no training, no experience that qualifies him for the job.”

Davis, whose wife is Jewish, added his apprehension that Cawthorn’s controversial Instagram post — featuring a series of photos at the Eagle’s Nest, Hitler’s mountain chalet — was more than just a social media blunder. 

Cawthorn has been accused of nodding to white nationalists. His real estate company, for instance, is named SPQR Holdings, after an acronym from the Roman Republic that has been appropriated by white supremacists, and until recently, he followed 88 people on Twitter, a number that is code for “Heil Hitler.”

For Davis, such names and symbols are more than just a coincidence. “If it was one thing or maybe two, you could kind of say, well, it’s just a fluke,” Davis said of Cawthorn. “But there are just too many pieces of the puzzle that paint a pretty clear picture that, you know, if he’s not one, he’s certainly quite cozy with white nationalist sentiments.”

Esther Manheimer, Asheville’s mayor, agreed with Davis’s assessment. “I think the concern is that at worst Cawthorn is antisemitic, at best he’s terribly uninformed about how his public messaging is perceived as antisemitic,” Manheimer, a member of Asheville’s Beth HaTephila synagogue, told JI, adding that Davis “has broad support in Asheville including the Jewish community.”

“Recent revelations about Madison Cawthorn only bring a sense of urgency to that support,” Manheimer said. “It is maddening to think that voters in NC-11 could consider electing an antisemitic representative to Congress.”

In a recent extensive interview with JI, Cawthorn denied accusations that he is antisemitic or that he holds white nationalist sentiments.

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Moe Davis election
Moe Davis (Stephan Pruitt Photography)

Davis is aware that his opponent has an edge in the traditionally conservative district, and he has made an effort to put forward policy proposals that place him squarely in the political center. 

He has refrained from committing to the Green New Deal as well as a ban on assault weapons, stances that have cost him endorsements from progressive groups, he said. “If you look at the positions that I’ve taken on issues, I’ve tried to be sensible,” said Davis, who has made broadband infrastructure a central part of his campaign. “Trying to address those kinds of issues really isn’t a partisan issue.” 

Still, Davis doesn’t hesitate to call out the president for what he views as a litany of indiscretions, particularly on the international stage. 

“I don’t know that I’ll live long enough to see us undo the damage that we’ve done,” Davis said, alleging that Trump has degraded long-standing alliances like NATO and put the U.S. in a weaker position as a result.

Davis also takes aim at Trump’s decision to leave the Iran nuclear deal known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). 

“The United States would have been in a stronger position to oppose Iran’s nuclear ambitions had we remained in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action,” Davis writes in a position paper on U.S.-Israel relations that his campaign provided to JI. “The Trump administration’s withdrawal from the JCPOA has eroded America’s credibility, weakened our influence, alienated our friends and allies, and made the United States and Israel less safe.” (Davis did not specify whether the U.S. should return to the deal.)

But Davis reserves his harshest criticism for Trump’s move to withdraw American troops from northern Syria, leaving Kurdish forces in the lurch. “The thing that really appalls me the most is abandoning the Kurds in Syria after they fought and died for us fighting ISIS,” Davis said. “We used to be a dependable, reliable ally, and I think right now, with the current administration, that that’s no longer the case.”

Despite such criticism, Davis praised the Trump administration’s involvement in brokering Middle East peace agreements between Israel and Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, describing them as “a positive step” toward addressing “intractable problems.” 

He added his belief that any possible future resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would have to be worked out between the parties directly involved in negotiations. “We can’t force peace upon them,” he said.

“I think the U.S. can play a role as a facilitator,” said Davis, who supports a two-state solution to the conflict. “But ultimately, Israel and the Palestinians, they need to resolve this themselves.”

Davis, of course, is now focused on the more immediate challenge of getting to Congress. 

Though he has sought to affect a more civil persona in the race to represent the 11th district, he says that he won’t be wearing kid gloves as he goes up against an opponent whose party, he believes, has not played nice in recent years. “My argument has been when we have a knife fight, they come with a machete and we show up with a quinoa salad,” he said. “We’ve got to fight back.”

Not that he wants to stay in the ring for long. “For me this isn’t a stepping stone,” he said. “I want to get the country back on level ground.” The congressional hopeful promises that he has no political ambitions beyond the House. “I’m not going to run for the Senate or president or anything else,” he said. “When I’m done, I’m done. I’m coming home.”

“And then I do want to retire,” he said. “We built a really nice house with a nice porch, and I want to sit on the porch and drink some good IPAs and enjoy some of the time I got left.”

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