The dark side of the Republican's newest star
North Carolina congressional nominee Madison Cawthorn addresses the virtual convention on August 26, 2020 (Photo Courtesy of the Committee on Arrangements for the 2020 Republican National Committee via Getty Images)
Madison Cawthorn, the Republican nominee for Congress in North Carolina's 11th District, is an emerging GOP star. After the 25-year-old Cawthorn scored an upset victory in the primary, he was invited to speak at the Republican National Convention. He has a compelling personal story, overcoming a serious auto accident at 18 that left him partially paralyzed. The telegenic Cawthorn makes frequent appearances on Fox News and has been photographed hobnobbing with Trump, Rudy Guiliani, and other Republican leaders.
Cawthorn faces Democratic nominee Moe Davis, an attorney and retired U.S. Air Force colonel, in November's general election. But as election day approaches, a darker side of Cawthorn has emerged.
Cawthorn's campaign has received coverage from Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Tom Fiedler, who writes for a local outlet called AVL Watchdog. Upset with Fiedler's reporting, Cawthorn's campaign website attacked Fiedler for quitting "his academia job in Boston to work for non-white males, like Cory Booker who aims to ruin white males running for office."
This blatantly racist attack was first exposed by The Bulwark, a prominent center-right media outlet. Cawthorn has not apologized. Instead, Cawthorn claimed the attack was a "syntax error." A revised website now attacks Fiedler as "an unapologetic defender of left-wing identity politics." Cory Booker is no longer mentioned.
Later, Cawthorn's campaign released a statement dismissing criticism of the website, saying critics were focusing on "violations to woke dogma on race." The statement accused Fiedler and Davis of "playing the race card."
The website, however, is not the only incident that raises questions about Cawthorn's views on race. The city of Asheville, North Carolina, "voted unanimously to formally apologize for slavery and promise new investments in black homeownership and business opportunity." At a July campaign event, Cawthorn said he opposed the effort. "600,000 Americans gave their life to free slaves and you're going to tell me that's not enough?" Cawthorn asked. The real racists, Cawthorn said, are "white liberals" because they are obsessed with race. "Any liberals listening to this right now, you are a racist," he said.
In a 2017 Instagram post documenting a trip to Germany, Cawthorn referred to Hitler as "the Führer" and said visiting Hitler's vacation home, the "Eagle's Nest," had been on his "bucket list for awhile." Cawthorn added that it was strange to "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 AVL Watchdog, Fiedler reported that Cawthorn — intentionally or not — has adopted symbols of white nationalists, "including some participating in the infamous Charlottesville “Unite the White” demonstration.
Among the issues is the name of Cawthorn's real estate investment company, SPQR Holdings, LLC. The initials SPQR have "been embraced by skinhead gangs in Italy and by some white nationalists in the United States." Cawthorn says it is merely “a term for Rome” and "a warning to my generation from the ages against tyranny and authoritarianism."
Cawthorn "is frequently interviewed at home against a wall displaying a stylized version of the so-called Betsy Ross flag with just 13 stars for the original 13 states." The Betsy Ross flag "has been adopted by some white supremacists to reference the nation at a time when Blacks were enslaved and counted in the newly adopted Constitution as three-fifths of a white person."
But neither these controversies nor Cawthorn's racist website has stopped some of America's most prominent corporations from backing his campaign.
The corporations backing Cawthorn
North Carolina's 11th District was previously represented by Mark Meadows, who is now serving as Trump's Chief of Staff. In the primary, Cawthorn faced Lynda Bennett, a friend of Meadows. Trump endorsed Bennett and recorded a robocall for her campaign.
But after Cawthorn scored an upset, the Republican Party lined up behind Cawthorn and corporate money began to flow to his campaign. Recent corporate PAC contributions to Cawthorn's campaign include:
Popular Information contacted all ten of these entities and asked whether Cawthorn's racist attack had any impact on their support for his campaign. AT&T and Exxon Mobile acknowledged the inquiry but did not provide a response. The other entities did not respond.
Cawthorn's truth problem
Over the course of the campaign, Cawthorn has been caught lying to create a more compelling narrative for voters. One of his campaign videos, for example, says that Cawthorn "planned on serving his country in the Navy with a nomination to the U.S. Naval Academy... until tragedy struck." But in a 2017 deposition related to the car accident, Cawthorn admitted he was rejected from the Naval Academy before the auto accident.
The lawyer asked Cawthorn: “[A]t some point in time, you were notified by the Naval Academy that you did not get in?”
“Yes, sir,” Cawthorn replied.
The lawyer continued: “Was it – it was before the accident?”
Cawthorn answered: “It was, sir.”
Cawthorn has never explained the discrepancy. It wasn't an isolated incident. Pressed on his lack of experience to be a member of Congress, Cawthorn said in an October 2 interview with a local media outlet that he had worked full-time for former Congressman Mark Meadows for two years.
“I don’t have 40 years of work experience, I’m only 25 years old, but I have worked in a congressional office for two years,” Cawthorn said.
Asked if that was full-time, he responded, “Yeah, I was full time.”
That was false. Records show "Cawthorn worked part-time on Meadows’ staff from Jan. 15, 2015 to at least Aug. 1, 2016." Cawthorn's campaign acknowledged that he was not, in fact, a full-time employee. He was paid about $1300 per month. "Madison was a permanent employee for Meadows who was paid on a part-time basis because he was physically incapable of performing some normal office duties due to his accident," a Cawthorn spokesperson said.
Cawthorn also regularly describes himself as a real estate investor and public speaker. But his financial disclosure, filed in March as a requirement of his candidacy, lists no income from either vocation. The form does not list any earned income from any source.
Multiple women allege Cawthorn made "unwanted sexual advances"
While Cawthorn was not accepted by the Naval Academy, he did attend Patrick Henry College for about a year. Ten of Cawthorn’s former classmates authored a letter this month condemning Cawthorn for his “gross misconduct towards our female peers” during his time as a college student.
During his brief time at the college, Cawthorn established a reputation for predatory behavior….Cawthorn would take young women to secluded areas, lock the doors, and proceed to make unwanted sexual advances. It became a regular warning in the female dorms not to be caught alone with Madison Cawthorn. Additionally, he referred to female students as 'bitches' and 'sluts,' both in private amongst his friends and often publicly. He also called our female peers these derogatory names when they refused to go for a ride in his car.
The letter was signed by 166 current students and alumni of Patrick Henry College.
In response, Cawthorn’s campaign told the AVL Watchdog that the letter contained “unsubstantiated and anonymous accusations” and accused without evidence opponent Moe Davis for spurring the allegations.
Days later, the campaign published a letter of endorsement from Patrick Henry College alumni. It was signed by six people – two of whom work on Cawthorn’s campaign. This letter describes the original letter as an attack from “liberal sources, as well as, discontented PHC alumni.” According to the AVL Watchdog, however, the authors of the original letter were not in contact with Davis’s campaign or any other political group. In fact, many of them describe themselves as conservative Christians.
In August, World, a Christian news magazine, reported that Cawthorn had made unwanted sexual advances on at least three women since 2014. “Two women say he forcibly kissed them. One woman told me he grabbed her thigh and moved his hand an inch or two beneath her dress,” wrote Harvest Prude.
Even before World published its report, one of the women mentioned in the piece, Katrina Krulikas, took to Instagram in August to publicly describe how Cawthorn forcibly tried to kiss her in 2014. Krulikas was a member of the same Christian homeschool community as Cawthorn.
“This older guy had taken me to the woods on our first date, only to pry into my sexual past and then try to force himself onto me,” Krulikas said. “I texted a friend, expressing how I didn’t feel comfortable being alone with Madison again, how he had been extremely aggressive and creepy towards me.”
Cawthorn’s campaign told World that Cawthorn had previously apologized to Krulikas “if his attempt to kiss her when he was a teenager made her feel uncomfortable or unsafe.” At the time of the alleged incident, Krulikas was 17 and Cawthorn was 19.
According to Krulikas, Cawthorn’s apology was “insincere.” He told her he “thought [she] was playing coy” and that “[he] can see in hindsight how that was over the line.”
“I believe that it should be noted that this [apology] came 6 years after the fact, when his political career is now at stake and he faces the possibility of public scrutiny,” wrote Krulikas.
Cawthorn cozies up to QAnon
In August, Cawthorn posted a video claiming that cartels were coming into the country and “kidnapping our American children and then taking them to sell them...on the sex slave market.” This claim, which is not supported by experts on human trafficking, is commonly echoed by QAnon believers. “I want to set free all the American children who have so tragically been taken from us,” Cawthorn said.
Cawthorn, who was visiting a private border wall at the time, suggests in the video that this information is coming from official channels. “I’m here meeting with a lot of ICE agents, a lot of federal agents and many sheriffs,” Cawthorn said.
On the trip, Cawthorn posted a photo with Lauren Witzke, the GOP Senate candidate who was photographed in a QAnon t-shirt and repeatedly posted QAnon hashtags. (Witzke nevertheless claims she does not believe in the conspiracy.) Cawthorn also took a photo with Mary Ann Mendoza, a member of Trump’s advisory board, who was disinvited from the RNC after promoting an anti-Semitic, QAnon conspiracy theory.
A spokesperson for Cawthorn told the AVL Watchdog that Cawthorn “categorically disavows ‘QAnon.’” When asked by the AVL Watchdog to provide sources for Cawthorn’s statement, the spokesperson shared a March 2019 news release by The Department of Homeland Security. The release, which focuses on migrants, made no mention of American children being trafficked by cartels.
This isn’t the first time Cawthorn pandered to the fringe. Cawthorn met with congressional candidate Lauren Boebert. Boebert, who is running for office in Colorado, once said that she hoped Q was real because it meant “America was getting stronger.”