RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — After nearly dying in a car crash six years ago, western North Carolina congressional candidate Madison Cawthorn already has learned many life lessons by age 24.
“There is no time to wait,” Cawthorn said in a recent interview. “Life is precious and it can be taken away at any time.”
So when Rep. Mark Meadows shocked Republican activists by announcing the day before filing ended in December that he wouldn't run, Cawthorn jumped in the race at the last minute to succeed him. Now Cawthorn's the one who's jolted the political establishment, winning the GOP nomination in a Tuesday runoff by soundly beating the candidate endorsed by both Trump and Meadows, who is now the president's chief of staff.
Cawthorn, who now uses a wheelchair because he's partially paralyzed, has built a strong following rapidly with a compelling story, a Libertarian-style focus on freedom and hopes among Republicans that he can attract millennial voters.
“We just have a much more compelling message that resonated with people,” he told The Associated Press after his nearly 2-to-1 victory over Lynda Bennett on Tuesday.
Cawthorn, who reaches the constitutionally-mandated minimum age of 25 to serve in the House on Aug. 1, would become one of its youngest members in U.S. history if he wins the general election in the Republican-leaning 11th District against Democratic nominee Moe Davis and others. The youngest current member of Congress, Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, is 30.
Cawthorn blitzed Bennett on Tuesday, even though she had been the top vote-getter in the original 12-candidate primary in March and had support from the political arms of the House Freedom Caucus that Meadows once led. While Cawthorn got support from a super PAC run by allies of Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, supporters said it was his ground game and personality that made the runoff a rout.
“Madison connects with people. He listens to them and people like him. It’s not magic," Merry Guy, chairwoman of the Republican Party in Henderson County, where Cawthorn lives, said on Wednesday. “When you talk about life experience, he’s gone through a lot of things none of us hopefully ever have to go through.”
Cawthorn was 18 when he was critically injured in 2014 in Daytona Beach, Florida, after a car he was riding in struck a concrete pylon. Now paralyzed from the abdomen down, Cawthorn has started a real estate investment company and gives motivational talks. Cawthorn pointed to Meadows as a mentor, someone who had nominated him for a Naval Academy appointment before the accident and whom he worked for later.
In an introductory campaign video, the first-time candidate described himself as an eighth-generation resident of the district who also knew how to attract young people to the GOP.
“I represent an emerging generation of Americans who are tomorrow’s leaders, most of whom think the Republicans don’t care about the disenfranchised, the hurting and those less fortunate. But nothing can be farther from the truth," he said.
Bennett and Cawthorn basically had the same conservative platform on abortion and gun rights and both were ardent supporters of Trump, who called Cawthorn on Tuesday night. But it was Bennett who got the president's endorsement. That wasn't surprising given that Meadows is now his top White House adviser and once closest ally in Congress.
The president's campaign tried quickly on Wednesday to jettison his runoff decision: “The campaign is excited to see a strong candidate and rising star have such a strong result last night,” spokesman Tim Murtaugh said. "We are excited to stand side by side with him to fight for the future of our country.”
The circumstances in which Bennett got into the race likely contributed to Cawthorn's resounding victory, said Chris Cooper, a political science professor at Western Carolina University. Meadows' 11th-hour announcement that he wouldn't run shut out candidates already running for other offices. Bennett, a friend of Meadows’ wife and Haywood County GOP official, announced her candidacy within a few hours of his announcement.
Trump's endorsement failed to help Bennett because it reminded local activists of the candidacy flap, Cooper said.
Still, Cawthorn “is an attractive candidate. He's a dynamic speaker, he's got a good story,” Cooper said.
Others believe Bennett's defeat is an electoral warning for Trump, who won North Carolina by 4 percentage points in 2016. Mike Madrid, a Republican strategist and adviser for the anti-Trump Lincoln Project, said while Cawthorn may become a notable part of the conservative movement, Madrid said, his victory wasn't “ideological at all. This was about Trump.”
Cawthorn still has the general election, where the Democrat Davis can promote his long career as an Air Force officer, including time as the former chief prosecutor for military tribunals at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Davis said in a statement after Cawthorn's victory: “No one in the service starts at the top and I don’t think the people of western North Carolina believe a congressional seat should be handed to someone like a graduation present.”
Associated Press writers Bryan Anderson in Raleigh and Jill Colvin in Washington contributed to this report.