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24-Year-Old NC Conservative Could Become Youngest Member Of Congress

Madison Cawthorn campaign
Madison Cawthorn is the Republican candidate for North Carolina's 11th Congressional District.

Last week, conservative Madison Cawthorn, who is 24, won a runoff election in the GOP primary for North Carolina’s 11th Congressional District, which is centered around Asheville.

Cawthorn’s surprising victory put him in the national spotlight, in part because President Trump and former 11th District Congressman Mark Meadows — the president’s current chief of staff — endorsed someone else, Lynda Bennett.

If Cawthorn wins in November, he will become the youngest member of Congress by far. Democrat Alexandra-Ocasio Cortez is the youngest today, at 30.

And Cawthorn would enter Congress after being paralyzed six years ago after a near-fatal car accident in Florida.

In this interview, Cawthorn says the GOP has struggled to connect with younger voters, that many Republicans are beholden to fossil fuels, and the GOP has failed in coming up with a better plan than the Affordable Care Act.

Cawthorn will face Democrat Moe Davis, a retired Air Force colonel in November. The 11th District was recently redrawn to include Asheville, a Democratic stronghold, but President Trump won the new district with 57% of the vote in 2016.

Steve Harrison: You have been in a wheelchair since your senior year of high school. On the campaign trail, did that resonate with the people of the 11th District? Was it something they asked you about?

Madison Cawthorn: You know, obviously it’s not something I enjoy talking about. It represents a significant sadness and pain that I have to go through in my life every day. But I will say that one of the things that really resonated with voters is when I start talking about the lessons I have learned from this. And you have your obvious lessons. Any time you go through something difficult, that always puts grit and perseverance deep inside you. But I’ve found that it also taught me a lesson I had not previously thought of, and that is empathy and compassion. 

Going through my life I was blessed to be from a great family. I was very athletic. School was pretty easy for me. So it was hard for me to empathize with people who were going through a hard time or maybe had a different background from me. But now that I have been in a wheelchair, I’ve seen what it’s like to be looked over in a crowd or feel disenfranchised or feel left behind.

Harrison: You talked about empathy with others. I want to continue with that theme. Asheville had some of the most intense protests over the death of George Floyd. Did your views on Black Lives Matter change? Did they shift from the start of the year to now?

Cawthorn: No, I would say it’s pretty much the same. Of course I believe that Black lives matter. I believe that all life is precious. And so, I think as a Christian and an American, I think what’s great about the American experiment is we don’t practice tribalism. We're a blended culture, and I think that’s a really powerful way to be.

Harrison: You are 24 now, and you will barely meet the minimum age requirement of 25 if elected. And you have said you want to bring a fresh face to the Republican party and help it improve its messaging to younger voters. But I've head that a lot over the years. How are you going to be different where others have failed?

Cawthorn: Well, gosh, they might have said that's what they wanted to, but my goodness they have failed. You know, (Texas Republican Congressman) Dan Crenshaw is a little more centrist than I am. But I think Dan Crenshaw's done the best job of talking about how the message of conservatism is that we believe in personal responsibility and freedom.

Harrison: Was this primary a reflection of people being dissatisfied with the president or was this about the inside politics of how this primary was set up, with Mark Meadows seemingly favoring Lynda Bennett?

Cawthorn: I would by no means say this was a referendum on President Trump’s influence here. I think the only thing that it showed is that the people of western North Carolina do not take well to cronyism.

Harrison:  I think it was in The New York Times interview you have said one area that you differ from many Republicans is the environment. But tell me what does that look like, because President Trump has rolled back a lot of environmental regulations. He took the U.S. out of the Paris Climate Agreement. Would you want to reverse any of those decisions? What would you do moving forward?

Cawthorn: Where I think I differ from a lot of Republicans is that I think a lot of Republicans are bought and paid for by the fossil fuel industry. And I’ll tell you that in 2019, let’s make cars a little more clean, let’s do what we can. But what I will tell you that what I think is important to realize is that I’m all for (the environment) when it doesn’t hurt the economy.

But at this point, with 30 million people unemployed – I know it changes by a few million every day up or down – I don’t think this is the time to be virtue signaling and sending out a lot of heightened regulations. But I will tell you I would love to get a plan that got us away from being so fossil fuel-dependent. Of course, I like the idea of wind and solar but I think the right answer is going to lie in nuclear.

Harrison: Republicans have tried to repeal the Affordable Care Act for more than a decade. Should they keep going? Is there a better way? Or is the ACA here to stay and the GOP needs to live with that?

Cawthorn: Let me ask a question: What is the Republican plan? Have you ever heard a plan? I’ve never heard one. I follow politics pretty dadgum close, and they always said "repeal and replace," and I’ll tell you we’ve had a pathetic batch of Republicans that came in the early part of this decade who were unable to keep Obamacare from getting passed, unable to repeal it and struggled just to get the Farm Bill through. It was disgusting.

Our party is supposed to be the party of action, the part of strength, and the party of being able to have great fact-based ideas, and I don't think we've seen that. My idea instead of "repeal and replace" it kind of "repeal and deregulate." Whether you're talking about Blue Cross Blue Shield here in North Carolina or several other states, you know, Blue Cross Blue Shield has a virtual monopoly on the entire state because they're protected because a company needs a certificate of need to come into practice and so because of that we see these artificially high insurance prices, which I was the direct victim of, and that's something that I really want to get fixed. 

Steve Harrison is WFAE's politics and government reporter. Prior to joining WFAE, Steve worked at the Charlotte Observer, where he started on the business desk, then covered politics extensively as the Observer’s lead city government reporter. Steve also spent 10 years with the Miami Herald. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, the Sporting News and Sports Illustrated.