Madison Cawthorn Scandals Mount After He Picked a Fight With North Carolina Republicans

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The hits just keep on coming on Rep. Madison Cawthorn, the tree-punching MAGA troll from the newly insane state of North Carolina. Geez, it’s like a guy can’t get pulled over (again) for a motor-vehicle violation or stopped (again) at an airport while carrying a gun without it ending up all over the newspapers and on TV. And mysteriously, every time it happens (again), the local news somehow gets ahold of the details of Cawthorn’s entire rap sheet.

And now, a questionable stock thing? And Senator Thom Tillis wants to bring the House Ethics Committee down on his ass? How’d that happen? Isn’t it enough that Cawthorn made those infamous remarks about cocaine-fueled sex orgies among his fellow Republicans? Can’t a brother get a break?

On the surface, as far as his politics go, Cawthorn isn’t any different from Lauren Boebert, Marjorie Taylor Greene, or any of the other Bedlamites in the Republican caucus in the House of Representatives. So why has he turned into Velcro for almost every kind of public scandal? The answer may lie in the fact that, unlike those two, Cawthorn has made some dangerous enemies back home, the kind who want the wingnut playground all to themselves, and who have the money to buy their way in.

To understand what’s happened to Cawthorn, you have to go back to last fall. Art Pope is North Carolina’s Koch Mini-Me, a wealthy conservative sugar daddy who is probably the person most responsible for the newly insane state of North Carolina becoming newly insane. He bankrolled the Republican takeover of the state legislature, as Jane Mayer detailed in the New Yorker in 2011:

In the spring of 2010, the conservative political strategist Ed Gillespie flew from Washington, DC, to Raleigh, North Carolina, to spend a day laying the groundwork for redmap, a new project aimed at engineering a Republican takeover of state legislatures. Gillespie hoped to help his party get control of statehouses where congressional redistricting was pending, thereby leveraging victories in cheap local races into a means of shifting the balance of power in Washington. It was an ingenious plan, and Gillespie is a skilled tactician—he once ran the Republican National Committee—but redmap seemed like a long shot in North Carolina. Barack Obama carried the state in 2008 and remained popular.

The Republicans hadn’t controlled both houses of the North Carolina General Assembly for more than a century. (“Not since General Sherman,” a state politico joked to me.) That day in Raleigh, though, Gillespie had lunch with an ideal ally: James Arthur (Art) Pope, the chairman and CEO of Variety Wholesalers, a discount-store conglomerate. The Raleigh News and Observer had called Pope, a conservative multimillionaire, the Knight of the Right. The redmap project offered Pope a new way to spend his money.

And Pope went at this mission with both hands and a firehose. He transformed North Carolina’s politics while, at the same time, his virtually hand-picked legislature passed one extreme bill after another, gaining the state some unpleasant national publicity only a few years after Barack Obama won North Carolina in 2008. Washington Post:

On the inside, the budget director [Pope] and his GOP allies — who took over the legislature in 2010 and the governor’s mansion two years later with the backing of Pope and other big donors — have passed numerous laws overhauling taxes, social services and voting rights. McCrory has also eliminated a public financing program for judicial races — opening those contests to greater influence by wealthy donors — and has sought to cut funding for the state’s university system. Both are pet causes of Pope’s.

In short, cross Art Pope as a Republican politician in North Carolina, and you have the political half-life of a dead vice president. In 2020, Cawthorn won the seat in North Carolina’s 14th district. He then embarked on his new career as a star in the House of Representatives’ new Rodeo Clown Caucus. While he was performing, the state legislature redrew the electoral map and it created a district tailor-made for Tim Moore, the speaker of the North Carolina House. Cawthorn decided that the new 13th Congressional district was a tasty dish, containing as it does a slice of the city of Charlotte, so he jumped into that race. Moore raised the white flag instantly. At which point, the North Carolina Republican establishment, which is pretty far to starboard its own self, reacted the way Ned Beatty did to Peter Finch in Network. Cawthorn meddled with the primal forces of nature, and he…will…atone.

Moore may have shown the white feather, but his friends in the party establishment hadn’t. Shots were fired almost immediately. From the Asheville Citizen-Times:

“This isn’t a noble effort. This is ambitious cowardice at its worst,” wrote Charles Jeter Jr., an influential former Republican state representative and among the first to sound the anti-Cawthorn alarm. “He’s an embarrassment that we need to defeat.”

Fire at will.

None spoke so directly as did John Hood, board member and former president of the John Locke Foundation, the secular church of the North Carolina Republican establishment: “Madison Cawthorn is a callow and appallingly ignorant young man who regularly embarrasses conservatives and Republicans, whether they admit it or not.”

And this in a tweet from Susan M. Tillis: “I can assure you that those of us in the new 13 (Congressional District) don’t need any intervention and we are capable of making our own decisions.” Tillis leads a foundation with strong military links and is the wife of Thom Tillis, himself a veteran of the GOP establishment whom Cawthorn has dismissed as a RINO, the acronym for Republican in Name Only, among Trump’s favorite insults. The Tillises have a stake in this congressional race as they live in a Charlotte suburb inside the newly created 13th District.

Hood’s excoriation of Cawthorn is far more significant than harsh words coming from the spouse of a senator. Hood is widely considered to be Art Pope’s mouthpiece, and he took Cawthorn apart in the Carolina Journal, Pope’s guidebook for the state’s Republican establishment. In fact, Hood uncrated the flamethrower:

Of course, one regularly finds the words “embarrassing” and “ignorance” in the same sentence as the name of the freshman congressman from Western North Carolina…My indignation about this episode, however, isn’t directed primarily at Cawthorn, who is likely a pawn in some broader (and sillier) scheme hatched by others. What appalls me is that out-of-state operatives are using him as a vessel to trash the very real accomplishments of conservative governance in our state. You can see the same dynamic in the GOP primary for US Senate, with the Club for Growth and other supporters of US Rep. Ted Budd sliming former Gov. Pat McCrory as “unprincipled” with “a record of failure.”

Cawthorn is not without the wherewithal to make this a bloody fight. He’s got the war chest to do it, plus he’s already scared the GOP establishment’s champion out of the fight. You’d have to be a sucker at this point to discount the appeal of even mock-populism to the Republican base. And, of course, I wouldn’t worry about how those old photos of Congressman Cawthorn in lingerie made it into the media mainstream. Now, not worried about that at all.

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