Pence confidant helps 24-year-old beat Trump-backed candidate
Tuesday night’s surprise victory by 24-year-old Madison Cawthorn in a North Carolina GOP primary has created some awkward dynamics in the West Wing.
Cawthorn defeated a congressional candidate backed by President Trump and White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, and he did so with some help from one of Vice President Pence’s closest confidants.
“That certainly would not be a good look for internal dynamics at the White House,” said one GOP strategist familiar with the race.
Bill Smith, who served as Pence’s chief of staff on Capitol Hill and later in the Indiana governor’s mansion, wrote in a Facebook post that his new political consulting firm, Sheridan Strategy Group, played a key role in propelling Cawthorn to victory.
“For our first effort we teamed with the campaign of Madison Cawthorn. … We did his general consulting and media and digital support. After finishing second in a 12-person field earlier this year and forcing a run-off election with the top finisher, he won today by a 2-1 margin,” Smith wrote in a post to friends late Tuesday night.
“With our first WIN under our belt, we are looking forward to helping other good people succeed in their desire to serve in public office,” added Smith, who for 14 years served as chief of staff, campaign manager and senior adviser to Pence. “Congratulations to our Sheridan Strategy Group team and to Madison Cawthorn! Now on to the general election.”
Cawthorn’s shocking win dealt a second blow to the president in as many weeks. Another Trump-backed candidate, Rep. Denver Riggleman (R-Va.), was ousted in a primary after he suffered conservative backlash for officiating a gay wedding.
Trump got involved in the North Carolina runoff race to succeed Meadows in the closing weeks of the campaign. He endorsed Lynda Bennett, a real estate agent and close friend of Meadows and his wife, Debbie Meadows, at Meadows’s urging. The president also recorded a robocall for Bennett, saying she would “fight crazy Nancy Pelosi and that radical socialist liberal group trying to destroy our country,” according to Politico.
On top of that, the House Freedom Action PAC, a group aligned with Meadows and the House Freedom Caucus, which he co-founded as a lawmaker, spent more than $800,000 on ads promoting Bennett and $310,000 on ads attacking Cawthorn, according to campaign finance reports.
But Cawthorn walloped Bennett on Tuesday, 66 percent to 34 percent.
The election came after Meadows, one of Trump’s closest allies on Capitol Hill, stepped down from his deep-red, western North Carolina congressional seat on March 30 to become Trump’s fourth chief of staff. Meadows had announced in December that he would not seek reelection.
Cawthorn, a businessman who has used a wheelchair since he was paralyzed in a car accident in 2014, is now heavily favored to win in November.
In a phone call Wednesday, Smith, who features a photo of himself alongside Pence on his firm’s website, downplayed any tensions or bad feelings over the tough-fought race. Smith said one of his business partners, Terry Allen, had known Cawthorn and that Sheridan Strategy had been hired to help the campaign during the 12-person primary race, before Cawthorn qualified for the runoff and before Trump endorsed Bennett.
“There has been no negative feedback” from the White House, Smith told The Hill, adding that Trump called to congratulate Cawthorn on Tuesday night.
“Madison is a Trump supporter and has been from Day One,” Smith added. The Trump and Meadows endorsements “had a lot more to do with personal relationships inside the White House than anything else. I don’t think it had much to do with political calculations,” he added.
White House officials declined to comment for this story.
While Bennett had Trump and Meadows in her corner, Cawthorn picked up endorsements from local officials like county commissioners, mayors and sheriffs. Cawthorn also was endorsed by Rep. Mark Walker (R-N.C.), the vice chairman of the House Republican Conference, who is retiring from Congress this year.
“I think this kid is special and not just because of the personal tragedy he experienced. He is wise beyond his years, and that’s why I got behind him and supported him and felt good about it,” said Walker, who put Cawthorn in touch with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) by phone while Walker was attending the campaign’s victory party Tuesday night.
“Republicans need someone to bridge the gap to the next generation,” Walker said, “so why wouldn’t we get behind this guy?”
Cawthorn, who turns 25 on Aug. 1, is expected to become the youngest member of Congress in modern history. Trump won North Carolina’s 11th Congressional District by a 17-point margin in 2016.
Cawthorn has described Meadows in the past as a mentor — the then-congressman nominated Cawthorn to the U.S. Naval Academy shortly before a car crash derailed those plans.
But in an interview with MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” Cawthorn said he didn’t know why Meadows worked so hard to elect his rival.
“That is the question I believe a lot of voters were asking in western North Carolina last night and all throughout early voting. I can’t really give you an answer on that,” Cawthorn said. “All I know is Mr. Meadows had been very good to me throughout my life. I wish I could have had his endorsement early on, but it appears that we did not need it.”
Cawthorn said Trump called him and described his come-from-behind victory as “beautiful.”
“Just talking about how impressive it was that we were able to overcome just so many large obstacles that we did,” Cawthorn said on MSNBC.
“I believe, you know, the president recognized that we ran a campaign that was very difficult to beat, and also that we are someone who can really help ease this partisan divide that’s going on in our country right now, to help bring a lot of our voters together.”
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