Cawthorn ramps up defense as crass videos add to mountain of bad press
Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-N.C.) is speaking out more forcefully against a barrage of negative news stories about him as he tries to hang on to political life less than two weeks before a contentious primary vote with top Republicans in his state working against him.
Cawthorn had largely avoided directly addressing allegations of insider trading, twice taking a loaded firearm to the airport, getting speeding tickets and more. But an anti-Cawthorn PAC’s recent release of videos showing the 26-year-old first-term lawmaker engaging in suggestive and vulgar behavior has pushed him to be more vocal.
A video released Wednesday night in which Cawthorn could be seen nude was “blackmail,” he tweeted, calling it years old. “I was being crass with a friend, trying to be funny,” he said.
Before that, Cawthorn released a seven-minute, 41-second video directly addressing and brushing off a number of controversies.
“I’m sure that many of you still have questions that are reasonable,” Cawthorn said in the video posted Wednesday. “I don’t want to waste my time fighting the fake news media and every single narrative they put out, but I feel that I am honor-bound to dispel some of their lies.”
He lashed out at rival campaigns accusing him of wanting to cut Social Security and military spending by 33 percent, saying that misrepresents a portion of his “New Contract with America” plan to cut government spending by a third. And he denied having insider knowledge by promoting a “Let’s Go Brandon” cryptocurrency, calling claims reported in the Washington Examiner “shallow.”
A video showing him being suggestive with a distant relative, who is also his congressional office scheduler, was “just stupid locker room talk between two cousins that grew up like brothers,” Cawthorn said. Photos published by Politico showing him wearing lingerie, he said, were from a “goofy game on a cruise ship” and taken before he took office.
“Honestly, I was told that I looked pretty good in these pictures, and I think there should be some bipartisan agreement on that,” he said.
Cawthorn did acknowledge making some mistakes when he was ticketed for speeding and when he brought a loaded firearm to a TSA checkpoint — twice. Cawthorn said he forgot to disarm.
“That’s my bad, and I have to own that one,” he said of the TSA incident.
But Cawthorn did not address a number of statements that led to headlines and public rebukes from Republicans like House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.), including calling Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky a “thug,” claiming that he had been invited to an orgy in Washington and seeing those who advocate against addiction doing “key bumps of cocaine.”
“This is unacceptable. There’s no evidence to this,” McCarthy said at the time. “That’s not becoming of a congressman. He did not tell the truth.”
The consistent drip of negative information is fueling campaigns against him.
“I think these last few videos and pictures have been, for many people here, has just been the final straw,” said primary opponent Michele Woodhouse, a longtime Republican activist in the Western North Carolina district. “I mean, we’re talking about layers and layers of things. You know, no one in Washington, D.C., is going to work with him on legislation.”
“Congressman Cawthorn takes no responsibility for his actions. And that’s a character issue, and that’s a maturity issue,” Woodhouse said.
Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) has endorsed another GOP challenger, state Sen. Chuck Edwards, who has knocked Cawthorn in ads for his frequent social media use. Edwards also has the backing of state Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger and state Senate Majority Whip Jim Perry.
Cawthorn does have one very powerful Republican in his corner: former President Trump. Last year, Trump endorsed Cawthorn’s reelection bid to the seat, which was previously held by his White House chief of staff Mark Meadows. Cawthorn spoke at a Trump rally in North Carolina last month.
His office did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
The salacious videos have also put a spotlight on professional standards for House members. Conservative commentator Meghan McCain pointed to a double standard for men, saying that Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) would be politically dead if a nude video of her circulated.
“But hey, boys will be boys, right? So great Cawthorne [sic] wasn’t born a woman! Long live the patriarchy,” McCain wrote on Twitter.
One of the most recent high-profile examples of a member being forced out of office in connection with salacious images was former Rep. Katie Hill (D-Calif.). Hill, who was also a first-term lawmaker, resigned from office in 2019 amid allegations of having inappropriate sexual relationships with her staff members. The scandal was heightened by a messy divorce and the release of nude photos.
Woodhouse worries that having Cawthorn as the GOP nominee for North Carolina’s 11th District would put it at risk of flipping to Democratic control, despite it tilting toward Republicans by about 14 points, according to FiveThirtyEight.
“We will lose the seat to a very liberal Democrat,” Woodhouse said. “It will affect every down-ballot race in this congressional district. We have to protect the seat with a strong America first candidate, and Madison has put this seat in great risk.”
Democrats hoping to challenge Cawthorn in the general election include Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, an LGBTQ activist and county commissioner, and auto repair shop owner Katie Dean.
An April 25-26 poll commissioned by the Republican GOPAC showed that Cawthorn had lost ground in his primary race, dropping from 49 percent in March to 38 percent.
Cawthorn, however, needs to win just 30 percent of the vote in a May 17 primary in order to avoid a runoff, putting him in a position to potentially keep his nominee status despite the negative press.
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