early and often

Madison Cawthorn’s Self-destruction Is Complete

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photos: Getty Images

In 2020, Madison Cawthorn became the youngest Republican elected to Congress in American history. In 2022, he became the youngest Republican to lose reelection to Congress in American history.

A spokesperson for Cawthorn said he conceded the Republican race for his North Carolina congressional seat Tuesday night. The 26-year-old Cawthorn lost after a series of self-imposed scandals, controversies, and gaffes. He was repeatedly pulled over for speeding while driving without a license, twice took a firearm through airport security, faced allegations of sexual misconduct and insider trading, and baselessly accused colleagues of participating in cocaine-fueled orgies, and then there was the weird video of him humping another man.

It didn’t help that Cawthorn had an inflated view of his own political stock. He released his own personal policy program for House Republicans, an unusual step for any individual member let alone a freshman backbencher. And he angered his home state’s Republicans by announcing a bid in a newly drawn district meant for the state House Speaker only to see the gerrymander thrown out in court and forcing him to return, chastened, to run in the district he currently represents.

Cawthorn’s maneuver especially angered Senator Thom Tillis, who had been attacked by Cawthorn. Tillis endorsed State Senator Chuck Edwards, who defeated Cawthorn on Tuesday, and actively campaigned against him. A Tillis-tied super-PAC ran ads explicitly attacking Cawthorn as “a liar.” When asked by a reporter Tuesday whether Cawthorn deserved a second chance, the Republican senator jibed, “I believe everybody deserves second chances. That’s why I voted for a lot of the criminal justice reform bills.”

Republican discontent stretched beyond traditional figures such as Tillis. “No one from the Freedom Caucus guys to people in MAGA world are happy with how he conducted himself,” said one ally of Donald Trump. There is a sense he had behaved even worse than controversial figures such as Marjorie Taylor Greene, who, for all inflammatory rhetoric, was not viewed as “super-conceited and cocky.” Another plugged-in Republican strategist put it more bluntly: “The guy is just a total fuckup and shows the limits of patience and tolerance that the MAGA movement has for complete and utter idiots. It’s breaking laws and recklessness in personal behavior.”

The result was Cawthorn did not get the full and effusive emailed statement of endorsement on the eve of the election that Trump has given to scores of other Republicans. Instead, Trump simply posted a statement on his flailing new social-media platform, Truth Social, where he described Cawthorn as making “some foolish mistakes” but insisted the freshman Republican deserved “a second chance.”

Even such tepid praise marked a major fall from glory for Cawthorn, who took office just four months after his 25th birthday and was an immediate Republican star. On the strength of his youth — and what turned out to be a fabricated backstory about the obstacles he had to overcome after being paralyzed in a car accident at the age of 19 — he had not only won an open Republican primary without Trump’s endorsement but had then gone on to be a featured speaker at the 2020 Republican convention.

Still, there was one shred of sympathy for Cawthorn as Tuesday night drew close. After reading a long Politico profile of Cawthorn describing him as unraveling, one freshman Democrat told Intelligencer they came away with a feeling of pity toward. “I just felt more sympathy than anything else. This is a person who clearly has ambition, whose pain and whose ability to create new life through that pain could be inspiring, but instead has become self-destructive.”

Madison Cawthorn’s Self-destruction Is Complete