- The scandal-ridden GOP representative Madison Cawthorn faces seven challengers in the upcoming May 17 primary election.
- Five former campaign volunteers said he turned his back on their North Carolina district and values.
- The volunteers called him “irresponsible” and told Insider that they support his primary opponents.
HENDERSONVILLE, North Carolina – When Madison Cawthorn first ran for office in 2020, Bruce Rose spent hours handing out flyers in various counties, knocking on doors and seeing polls to help someone he thought would become a future conservative star.
His four months of volunteer work for Cawthorn’s campaign consisted of working with dozens of other Republicans in an environment he remembered as “energetic.” Now, two years later, Cawthorn is running for re-election.
As Rose looks back on his time as he helped Cawthorn win his first term, memories he once fondly remembers are now marked by a sense of betrayal.
“He fooled everyone to hell,” Rose said. “I despise him … he is a criminal and a performer.”
Cawthorn, the youngest member of Congress at 26 and an outspoken Conservative, is in the political battle of his life.
Since being elected to office, police have twice cited the Republican lawmaker in North Carolina for bringing a loaded gun to local airports. In March, police charged him with driving with a disqualified driver’s license – a misdemeanor that was just the latest in a series of traffic offenses.
Amid the growing scandals, of which a leaked nude video may be the latest, five former volunteers have turned up to Insider to say they want to support his opponents, feeling he turned his back on their district and conservative values.
“He changed. If you proclaim the law, you must stand for the law, and he does not,” Rose said.
“It’s very irresponsible,” said April Holsinger, another former campaign volunteer for Cawthorn, referring to the congressman carrying a gun through airport security in his hand luggage. “You should know if you have a gun in your bag or not.”
Luke Ball, a spokesman for Madison Cawthorn, told Insider that they “understand that a small handful of former volunteers are backing other candidates in the GOP’s primary election and that they hope to present their candidates to the media.”
“It’s their prerogative, and we look forward to uniting the NC-11 GOP behind Congressman Cawthorn after a decisive victory on May 17,” Ball said in a statement.
‘It was about Madison’
In recent weeks, several scandals have erupted with Cawthorn that have alienated him from members of his own party.
A political action committee filed an ethical complaint against him. Republican Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina called for a congressional inquiry into him after the Washington Examiner reported that Cawthorn may have violated insider trading laws. Retiring Republican Senator Richard Burr, also from North Carolina, told CNN that “on any given day he’s an embarrassment” after Cawthorn claimed in a podcast in March that he was witnessing drug use and suggested he be invited to an “orgy” of Republican lawmakers.
Another former campaign volunteer, Greg Wiggins, says that when he first met a 24-year-old Cawthorn, he thought he was an “energetic young man” and “a great speaker.” But now, almost two years later, he says Cawthorn has changed and will not vote for him in the primary election on Tuesday.
“He’s more interested in hobbing with people in Washington than hobbing with a farmer over here, or someone who’s a plumber, or someone who needs their help as a veteran,” Wiggins said. “It was about Madison and not about District 11.”
Several former volunteers from the Cawthorn campaign told Insider they were shocked when, after less than a year in office, Cawthorn announced he would run for a neighborhood that was being redrawn and it would be even more solid red. But he withdrew and decided to defend his 11th district seat after the North Carolina Supreme Court knocked down the new district.
“He seems to have forgotten where he came from and who got him there,” Debbie Brogden, a former Cawthorn campaign volunteer, told Insider. “We worked so hard to get him there and wanted him in our district … I just thought it was unfair to us.”
Before he lined up, the then 24-year-old Cawthorn was largely unknown. His name appeared in the local newspapers when he was 18 years old after an almost fatal car accident in Florida that left him in a wheelchair.
Cawthorn grew up in the small conservative town of Hendersonville, North Carolina, the western region of the state that surrounds the Blue Ridge Mountains.
It is a place that was once ranked as No. 1 in the best places to retire in the state. The area in the center consists of a few blocks with shops with red bricks, small restaurants, vintage clothes and pawnbrokers, where the local residents walk by. On the corner of Henderson County History Center, a large, bright blue-green clock rings every hour.
A few blocks away from downtown Hendersonville, red and white flags are waving around the high school’s huge football field. Cawthorn himself did not attend; he was homeschooled until he attended Patrick Henry College, a private Christian liberal arts school in northern Virginia.
Before running for Congress, Cawthorn started a real estate investment firm and was a motivational speaker. He was not supported by any major Republicans and ran a grassroots campaign that depended on dozens of volunteers in the community.
Cawthorn made national headlines after winning a re-election against Lynda Bennett, a real estate agent who was initially approved by both then-President Donald Trump and Mark Meadows, his newly installed White House Chief of Staff, who had most recently held the congressional seat.
Brogden told Insider that the first time she met Cawthorn, she was “blown away by his maturity” at such a young age.
“He had this vision of what he wanted for the Conservative Americans,” she said. “I was just fascinated that such a young person could be so strong.”
But now, almost two years later, Brogden says Cawthorn has become unrecognizable to her after his recent clash with police.
“It’s been so heartbreaking to see him become what he’s become,” she said.
Other former Cawthorn campaign volunteers say they increasingly believe that Cawthorn’s many controversies are not going to show up – they represent who he really is.
“He’s just a legitimate little boy,” Rose said, claiming he intentionally gets into law enforcement trouble. “He has not grown into manhood.”
Jonathan, another former campaign volunteer who declined to disclose his last name for fear of retaliation, said friends and people in the Hendersonville community warned him privately about Cawthorn during his first congressional hearing.
Jonathan, who has lived in Hendersonville, said he remembers an occasion where someone pulled him aside and told him “you’re being fooled” about Cawthorn. The person told him of allegations that Cawthorn had sexually harassed and inappropriately touched women while attending college (which Cawthorn has denied).
“I had people in the community trying to get me back on track,” Jonathan said. “But at the time, I could not look past what I thought would be something really huge and something really good for District 11.”
Jonathan said he is still divided over whether Cawthorn changed when he went to Washington, or whether this has been him all along.
Cawthorn faces seven Republican challengers in the primary. He will have to get more than 30% of the vote in the primary on Tuesday to avoid a re-election in July. Some of his challengers include Rod Honeycutt, a military veteran, and North Carolina State Senator Chuck Edwards, whom Tillis supports.
Several of the former Cawthorn campaign volunteers told Insider they would support Honeycutt in the primary election.
“He’s an honest guy and is a hard-working guy,” Wiggins said of Honeycutt. “I think he has integrity.”