Madison Cawthorn's short, eventful, and scandalous term in office

The North Carolina representative made quite an impact in his first term in office

Madison Cawthorn.
(Image credit: Illustrated | Getty Images, iStock)

Twenty-six-year-old Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-N.C.) was a rising star in the Republican Party, but his bad behavior made him a massive liability. Here's everything you need to know about one of the only incumbents to lose their job in Tuesday's primaries:

What did Cawthorn do before running for Congress?

Politico describes Cawthorn as the "handsome, 'charmed' second son of an 'upper middle class' financial adviser father and a homemaker mother who doubled as her boys' teacher, a onetime football linebacker, avid weightlifter and duck-hunter, [and] cheerful Chick-fil-A cashier."

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In 2014, a car accident shattered his ankles, pelvis, and back, leaving the 18-year-old Cawthorn paraplegic and suicidal. While testifying as part of a 2015 lawsuit connected to the accident, Cawthorn said it was his dream to become a congressman.

Two years later, he enrolled at Patrick Henry College, a conservative Christian school in Virginia with fewer than 400 students. Cawthorn dropped out after one semester, having earned mostly D's due to "a brain injury after the accident" that "slowed my brain down a little bit," he said.

How did Cawthorn first get elected?

In 2020, Cawthorn ran for Congress in North Carolina's 11th district. He finished second behind Lynda Bennett — who was endorsed by then-President Donald Trump — but defeated her soundly in a low-turnout runoff race and then beat retired Air Force Col. Moe Davis in the general election.

Before taking office, Cawthorn attempted to cast himself as a reasonable, compassionate Republican. He said that "Black lives matter" during a debate with Davis and said Trump showed a "lack of empathy" about George Floyd's death. He told The New York Times he wanted to "carry the message of conservatism in a way that doesn't seem so abrasive." He proudly said Trump hadn't endorsed him "because I'm willing to be strongly critical of him whenever he messes up."

As a congressman, however, Cawthorn has become one of the most confrontational and fanatically Trumpist lawmakers in Washington. Politico conducted more than 70 interviews with people who know Cawthorn and emerged with "a picture of a man in crisis ... an immature college dropout with a thin work resume, a scofflaw and serial embellisher who was neither qualified nor prepared for the responsibility and the scrutiny that comes with the office he holds ... a person whose ongoing physical pain and insecurities have made him unusually susceptible to the twisted incentives of a political environment and a Trump-led GOP that prizes perhaps above all else outrage and partisan attack."

What has Cawthorn done with his time in office?

The list of Cawthorn's scandals, gaffes, and inflammatory remarks is long, especially for someone who has spent such a short time in office. They include:

More than 150 of Cawthorn's former classmates at Patrick Henry signed an open letter in 2020 accusing him of turning "our small, close-knit community" into "his personal playground of debauchery." According to the letter, Cawthorn routinely drove women to secluded areas, locked the doors of his car, and made "unwanted sexual advances." He also referred to women who refused his advances as "b----es" and "sluts."

"We said then, and I would say now, that his character and conduct did not befit a leader, and that has held true in how he has conducted himself since he took office," Philip Bunn, a Patrick Henry alumnus and co-author of the letter, told The Week.

Now that Cawthorn has lost, who's next?

State senator and McDonald's franchise owner Chuck Edwards, 61, will pick up the mantle for the GOP in November. The Washington Post has a profile of him.

NOTE: This story was updated at 10 a.m. on May 18.

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