By Tom Fiedler, AVL Watchdog
When then-Congressman Mark Meadows stunned his constituents last winter with plans to abandon his seat to become White House chief of staff, he was already secretly assisting family friend Lynda Bennett of Maggie Valley in getting a running start to succeed him.
In the predawn of Dec. 19, before most folks in Western North Carolina had rubbed sleep from their eyes or learned of Meadows’ overnight announcement, Bennett issued a press release announcing her candidacy and boasting of endorsements from Meadows and his loyalists in the Asheville Tea Party. She went live with a campaign website that the Smoky Mountain News later found to have been two months in the making with the assistance of Meadows’ brother.
But if she intended this political equivalent of a shock-and-awe move just hours before the filing deadline to discourage potential rivals, it fizzled. Indeed, many campaign observers say it may well have backfired and hobbled a campaign that seems to be falling far short of its plan to install Bennett as chosen inheritor of Meadow’s seat.
As the race for the GOP nomination heads to the June 23 climax, Bennett appears by many indicators to be locked in a desperate race against 24-year-old political neophyte Madison Cawthorn of Hendersonville. What conventional thinking assumed would be a slam-dunk win for the GOP, the race for North Carolina’s congressional District 11, which includes Asheville and Buncombe County, is suddenly drawing national interest and outright Democratic Party glee.
A victory by Cawthorn, a political unknown until weeks ago, will be seen as a humiliating defeat for Bennett, a longtime GOP functionary. That humiliation will be shared by Meadows and such other firebrand conservatives as Congressman Jim Jordan of Ohio and Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, who have endorsed and contributed financially to her.
But most notable of all, humiliation could fall on the shoulders of Meadows’ new boss, President Donald Trump.
The president endorsed Bennett in a tweet well ahead of next week’s party election, declaring: “@LyndaBennettNC has my Complete &Total endorsement.” The tweet has become the crowning piece of her campaign messaging, echoed by her declarations of unceasing fealty to the president.
Yet it hasn’t slowed Cawthorn’s surprising momentum.
“President Trump has been batting close to 1.000 on his previous candidate endorsements, but I think he’s going to strike out on this one,” said veteran Republican state Senator Jim Davis, a former Franklin County Commissioner.
Added Chris Cooper, a Western Carolina University political scientist and respected analyst of regional campaigns, “The Trump endorsement hasn’t given her the bump she thought she’d have.”
Predicting the outcome of any election is fool’s work, and especially so during this unusual time and in a party race with an expected low turnout. Reliable independent polls are non-existent. Yet many political analysts along with Cooper and Davis believe they see signs that Bennett’s candidacy is in danger in spite of her Meadows’-assisted head start, establishment GOP endorsements and fundraising that has enabled her to flood local airwaves with ads.
Bennett, a real-estate agent and property manager, didn’t respond to numerous requests for comment for this story, a position she has maintained with most independent news organizations throughout the campaign. She has also refused all invitations to debate Cawthorn, which prompted him to show up at several forums with an empty chair labeled with her name.
“I think she’s surprised she has a race with someone who barely meets the Constitution’s age requirement to hold the office,” said Cooper, who posts frequent updates on the campaign on social media. “Madison Cawthorn is a better candidate than anybody thought he would be and Bennett is running scared.”
Bennett’s campaign strategy revealed flaws from the outset despite Meadows’ assistance – and some say because of Meadows’ assistance. He had easily won election to the District 11 seat four times with some of the largest margins in the state. In Congress, he became known as a conservative GOP leader and since 2016 a zealous champion of President Trump.
When rumors circulated last fall that Meadows was considering stepping down to take a position in the White House, he promised potential contenders that he would remain neutral in any subsequent party primary.
But his back-stage orchestration of Bennett’s campaign roll out on Dec. 19 belied that pledge to lasting consequence.
“He promised me that he wasn’t going to endorse anybody and yet he did,” said Davis, now in his fourth term in the state senate and a candidate for the congressional seat. “That shows that he has betrayed his supporters in the district.”
By announcing his decision to quit his seat just 30 hours before the filing deadline for the 2020 federal elections, Meadows’ obvious tactic was to stymie likely challengers to Bennett, a close friend to Meadows and his wife Debbie. Nevertheless, 11 other candidates scrambled in time to meet the noon deadline and join the GOP race.
The outcome of the primary election in March foretold of problems for Bennett and delivered a surprise challenger in Cawthorn. Bennett emerged at the top of the pack with about 22% of the vote, but it was far short of the 30% necessary to avoid a runoff.
Cawthorn came seemingly from nowhere to finish close behind her with 20 percent. The political newcomer from Hendersonville lists his occupations as real-estate investor and motivational speaker, though his financial disclosure filings with the Federal Elections Commission show no income from either. Rather, he primarily shows earnings from stock-market investments earned from a multimillion dollar insurance settlement he received as the result of an automobile crash when he was 17 that has left him a paraplegic.
Cawthorn was homeschooled and has no college degree or other professional experience. But his skills as a campaigner won him a following and he was proven politically adept by picking up the endorsements of most of the other unsuccessful GOP candidates. Bennett claims none of her former rivals.
“He’s a great public speaker,” said state Sen. Davis, who finished behind Cawthorn in the primary. “He’s charismatic. Handsome. And many people admire the fact that he’s overcome a terrible tragedy and is moving forward. He’s an inspiration.”
While Bennett touts her endorsements from Trump and such Washington, DC-based Republican icons as Jordan and Cruz, Cawthorn counters with the endorsements of some 40 county commissioners in the 17-county district and most of the Republican sheriffs.
Although he too claims unqualified support for Trump, he dismisses Bennett’s line-up of endorsements as weakness rather than strength because it indicates that, if elected, she’ll take her cues from the party establishment, not constituents. In an interview, he also ridiculed her refusal to meet him in candidate debates.
“If she isn’t willing to debate me,” he said, “what does that say about her when she has to face AOC,” nickname of Democratic Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a favorite foil of conservatives.
Davis said Bennett’s refusal to debate Cawthorn is “not reassuring” to potential Republican voters. “It shows your flaws, that you’re not confident and that maybe you’re incompetent.”
Bennett’s campaign aides defend her refusal to debate Cawthorn asserting that by airing their differences they would provide fodder for the Democratic nominee in the general election, retired Air Force Colonel Morris (Moe) Davis of Asheville, a lawyer and former war-crimes prosecutor at the U.S. prison for suspected terrorists at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
But this argument is belied by a no-holds-barred, heavily funded attack on Cawthorn being waged on Bennett’s behalf through harsh television ads funded by the House Freedom Action Fund, an arm of the arch-conservative House Freedom Caucus formerly headed by Meadows and now by Jordan.
One ad, which runs nightly on Asheville’s WLOS (Channel 13), portrays Cawthorn as a frivolous party boy with no professional credentials and is illustrated by images of him apparently lifted from social-media postings.
Roll Call, the newspaper that focuses on Congress, reported last week that the House Freedom Caucus’s political committees have spent $657,000 to benefit Bennett. Her campaign has paid WLOS an additional $102,610 for daily ads portraying her as a successful businesswoman and Trump loyalist with establishment backing.
By contrast, Cawthorn’s campaign has spent just $15,500 for ads on that station, roughly enough for one ad per day over the length of the run-off campaign. Most of his spending is focused on social media platforms and on hosting a variety of events tailored to adhere to the pandemic’s limitations.
But he, too, is lately receiving indirect support from a political-action committee targeting Bennett with discredited attacks saying she was a “Never Trumper” before the 2016 election. It uses an audio recording in which she takes on the role of a Republican who says she can “never” vote for then-candidate Trump.
Bennett calls this “fake news” and points out on her website that the recording was edited to omit portions revealing that she was mocking Republicans who call themselves “Never Trumpers,” not agreeing with them.
Cooper, the political-science professor, said the lone fact that Bennett’s allies feel the need to launch such brutal attacks against Cawthorn suggests a level of desperation that can be explained only if Bennett faces a dire threat to her election.
Rarely in a party primary does a comfortable frontrunner turn against a rival because it creates lasting intra-party divisions and depletes resources that may be needed for the general election.
Graeme McGufficke, campaign manager for Democratic nominee Davis, agrees that these tactics are signs of trouble for Bennett’s chances.
“If you don’t have to spend money [in a primary], then you shouldn’t,” he said. “Especially at this stage in their race when they may have another four months ahead of them.”
Another indication of potential trouble for Bennett are the numbers of early-voting ballots that have already been cast from counties considered favorable to Cawthorn, and particularly Henderson, his home county, and neighboring Buncombe. These counties together comprise 41% of the registered GOP vote.
Cooper maintains a daily count of these ballots on his social-media platforms and believes they give insight into the relative strengths of the candidates’ rival get-out-the-vote operations, which can also be harbingers of turnout for Tuesday’s in-person voting.
If his theory is correct, Cooper told AVL Watchdog in an interview, Cawthorn is positioned to upset Bennett and capture the nomination. As one example, the early ballots already cast in Cawthorn’s home county of Henderson reached 29% of the total cast in the first primary – more than triple the percentage of early-balloting at the same point in the March primary. In Buncombe, the current totals approach 40% of that election.
But the early balloting in Bennett’s base, Haywood County, was just 8% of the March total by the end of the final week.
Cooper said he wouldn’t discount the Bennett campaign’s ability to overcome any early-voting sluggishness with a strong primary-election day turnout, especially if the Trump endorsement takes hold.
On one thing, however, there can be little dispute: “This hasn’t been the race that Lynda Bennett saw coming.”
AVLwatchdog.org is an independent, non-profit news service. Tom Fiedler is a Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist, former executive editor of The Miami Herald, and a former Boston University dean and professor. He lives in Asheville. Mark Barrett, a veteran freelance journalist, contributed to this report.