WNC’s congressional seat may truly be in play this year

HEAD TO HEAD: New lines drawn just in time for the 2020 election tilted the formerly heavily Republican-leaning 11th congressional district closer to neutral. But Republican Madison Cawthorn, left, still enjoys an advantage — in terms of registered voters — over Democrat Moe Davis. Photos courtesy of the candidates

The contest to represent Western North Carolina in the U.S. House features candidates from different generations with different backgrounds and very different ideas about what needs to happen next in Washington.

The main thing Republican Madison Cawthorn and Democrat Morris “Moe” Davis might have in common is their experience with the national spotlight, albeit for very different reasons.

Cawthorn is a 25-year-old Henderson County resident whose age and compelling story of surviving a nearly fatal auto accident — he was partially paralyzed and uses a wheelchair — led the GOP to give him four minutes of speaking time during the Republican National Convention on Aug. 26.

Davis, 62, is a retired Air Force colonel from Asheville and former chief prosecutor of alleged terrorists held at the U.S. base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. His 2007 resignation from that job over his concerns that political pressures and the use of torture would make trials unfair got national headlines.

Cawthorn would be the youngest member of the House in decades and says he hopes to “represent the new generation of the Republican Party.” He is generous in his praise for President Donald Trump and quick to criticize “radical liberal ideology” in the Democratic Party that he also calls “neo-Marxism.” Several of his own positions are well to the right of the mainstream, and some are not.

Davis is often stridently critical of Republicans on social media, although his positions on issues place him in the moderate wing of the Democratic Party. His hope is that voters are “exhausted from 3 1/2 years of constant chaos” caused by Trump and now “want experience, somebody they can trust, an even hand on the wheel.”

Republicans have the upper hand in the 11th Congressional District Cawthorn and Davis hope to represent. But changes to its boundaries last year that put all of Buncombe County back in the 11th, and the absence of an incumbent on the ballot — the 11th’s House seat has been vacant since then-Rep. Mark Meadows became Trump’s chief of staff in March — mean a GOP victory is no longer an almost foregone conclusion, as it has been in other elections this decade.

Here’s a look at the main contenders.

A fighter’

Cawthorn’s recovery from the 2014 auto accident is the centerpiece of his campaign. His campaign website urges voters to “Send a Fighter to Congress.”

Cawthorn was in the front passenger seat on a leisure trip to Florida that April when the driver, a high school friend, nodded off. The vehicle slammed into a concrete barrier and caught fire. Cawthorn’s friend pulled him from the wreckage.

Cawthorn, then a high school senior, suffered extensive injuries, spent five weeks in the hospital and still more time in a rehabilitation facility. He said in an Aug. 25 interview that at one point he wrote out a lengthy list of the pros and cons of living, ultimately deciding “that God saved my life for a reason.”

After the accident, Cawthorn worked for about a year as a staff assistant in Meadows’ Hendersonville office. Next was a year at Patrick Henry College, a small liberal arts school in northern Virginia that seeks to propel conservative Christians into positions of influence.

Cawthorn dropped out. He says his grades were mostly Ds, attributing his performance to heartbreak after his then-fiancée broke off their engagement and his doubts about the relevance of his classes to his future. “I didn’t really apply myself,” he says.

He lists his occupations now as CEO of a real estate investment company and motivational speaker.

Cawthorn finished second among 12 candidates in the first round of voting for the GOP House nomination, then pulled off a major upset in the June 23 runoff, beating a candidate Meadows and Trump had endorsed by nearly a 2-1 majority.

The political world took notice. Cawthorn was interviewed on several TV news shows, and he and his new fiancee visited Trump in the White House.

A sexual aggressor?

Not all of the attention has been positive. Media accounts have questioned Cawthorn’s relations with women, biographical descriptions and alleged affinity for white nationalist symbols.

Cawthorn and his campaign have dismissed most of the criticisms as false or half-truths that are part of Democratic efforts to harm his candidacy. However, an extensively documented examination of his incidents with women appeared in Asheville-based World magazine, a conservative publication that says its reporting is “grounded in facts and biblical truth.”

Cawthorn was home-schooled and sometimes speaks at church events. Two young women who were in the same social circle of home-schooled local Christians told World Cawthorn tried to force them to kiss him when he was 19. Another said Cawthorn put his hand on her thigh under her skirt against her will in the dining room at Patrick Henry.

In his interview with Xpress, Cawthorn said he has “no recollection” of the alleged college incident and “I’ve never tried to force myself onto somebody. … If my advances made someone feel uncomfortable, that’s something I really feel bad for.”

Cawthorn’s campaign advertising also says Meadows nominated him to attend the U.S. Naval Academy but his accident “derailed his plans.” Unmentioned is that the academy rejected Cawthorn’s nomination — a fact he acknowledged in litigation related to the accident.

On Aug. 25, Cawthorn said the word “derailed” refers to his plans to serve in the military. He said he contacted Meadows’ office after the Naval Academy notified him that he had not been admitted, about a week before his car accident, and Meadows “had his staff working on it.” Cawthorn said he believes he would have ultimately been admitted but for his injuries.

Money matters

A required financial disclosure form Cawthorn filed in March contains no mention of his real estate firm, SPQR Holdings, or income from motivational speaking but says he had between $1.5 million and $6.6 million in stocks, bonds and similar assets.

The real estate firm was incorporated in August 2019. Cawthorn says it has only one holding, property southwest of Atlanta purchased last October for $20,000, although he has another real estate project in the works in Henderson County. He says his motivational speaking has mostly consisted of talks to church and youth groups.

Legal records indicate Cawthorn was covered by health insurance at the time of the car accident and that he obtained $6 million in settlements following the crash, minus attorney fees. He is still suing for additional compensation.

GOP goes Millennial

Cawthorn has been criticized for his enthusiastic reaction on social media to visiting Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest retreat and use of symbols sometimes employed by right-wing extremists. But he calls white nationalists “the most narrow-minded, idiotic people I’ve ever heard of.”

Eagle’s Nest attracts thousands of tourists annually who have no affinity for Hitler’s ideas, Cawthorn notes, and his Instagram post called Hitler a “supreme evil.” He adds that his fiancée, Cristina Bayardelle, is biracial.

A researcher at the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism dismissed concerns over other symbols in comments to CNN, saying the Betsy Ross flag visible in many of Cawthorn’s videos and the acronym SPQR — a symbol of the Roman republic and part of Cawthorn’s company name — are often used by people with no ill intent.

Cawthorn says his youth should be no bar to him serving in the House, noting in his convention speech that some of America’s early leaders were also young. However, he incorrectly said in his remarks that James Madison signed the Declaration of Independence when he was 25; Madison was not a signatory.

Cawthorn says Republicans sometimes sound as if they are “almost anti-conserving the environment” and he would offer a different message. He says his journey following the car wreck gives him more empathy for others facing obstacles and he supports health care reform involving less regulation and more competition.

Republicans have made a mistake by focusing on some social issues, he says, but Cawthorn also says he is strongly anti-abortion and declined for now to name any social issues where he breaks with GOP orthodoxy.

During his remarks to the Republican convention, he urged viewers to “be a radical for freedom, be a radical for liberty.”

Before the June runoff, he told Murphy radio station WKRK, “Our education system in America has become nothing more than … indoctrination camps.”

Asked about gun rights, Cawthorn showed the WKRK interviewer a pistol, saying, “I’ve got my Glock on me at all times, ready to defend myself and my constitutional rights.” He decried what he called a “gradual decline” in gun rights, complained about restrictions on silencers and automatic rifles and said he supports repealing many existing laws governing firearms.

Davis chooses law

A ban on alcohol sales in Watauga County helped launch a 35-year career for Davis that saw him leave two jobs over matters of conscience or free speech.

Davis grew up in the Shelby area and attended Appalachian State University in Boone in the late 1980s. A family friend who was a bail bondsman frequently got calls from ASU students who were arrested on drunken driving charges on their way back to school after imbibing elsewhere.

“Most college kids at 2 in the morning didn’t have $500 to get bonded out,” Davis said in an interview.

The friend invited Davis to handle the cases, so his part-time college job was as a bail bondsman. That experience contributed to his decision to major in criminal justice, and after graduation he got a law degree at N.C. Central University in Durham.

Military mindset

Davis joined the Air Force as a military lawyer, partly as a tribute to his father, a disabled Army veteran who died around the time he passed the bar exam, and partly because he says the choice put him in a courtroom right away.

He’d planned to only serve four years, but says, “I just kept getting jobs that were interesting, that I enjoyed, and next thing I knew it was 25 years later.” Those jobs included responsibility for legal matters at several Air Force bases, preparing briefs in cases affecting the Air Force before the U.S. Supreme Court and heading the investigation of sexual assault and related issues at the Air Force Academy in the early 2000s.

Davis was appointed in 2005 to be the chief prosecutor of suspected terrorists held at a U.S. base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Davis says he took the job because he thought it was important that detainees got a trial that was not only fair to both sides but also was seen by the world as fair.

He worked on legislation that authorized the military tribunals to handle the cases and for a time was a fierce defender of the process. He says he had instructed his team not to use evidence obtained via torture. “Torture is a great tool to make people talk. It’s a lousy tool to make them tell the truth,” Davis says.

But in the fall of 2007, the administration of President George W. Bush changed the command structure for the tribunals. Among other problems, Davis says, the move placed him and the entire process under people he says “had no qualms about torture” and were pushing for quick, high-profile convictions for political reasons.

That, he says, ended chances that proceedings would be impartial, and Davis resigned.

One of Davis’ superiors and the target of some of his accusations, Brig. Gen. Thomas Hartmann, wrote that “the process offers unprecedented rights to alleged war criminals.” One of Davis’ previous supervisors said his criticisms were not whistleblowing but “a whine.” A military judge, however, later removed Hartmann from one case — in which Davis testified for the defense — saying the general had used undue influence.

Next chapter

Davis joined the Congressional Research Service in 2008, overseeing analysis of defense, foreign policy and trade issues for the congressional agency.

He was fired in 2009 when The Wall Street Journal published his op-ed criticizing a decision by the Obama administration to prosecute some of the Guantanamo detainees in federal court and others via military commission. Davis argued the policy would give some of the accused more rights than others and “perpetuate the perception that Guantanamo and justice are mutually exclusive.”

The American Civil Liberties Union took up his case, saying the firing violated Davis’ right to free speech, and Davis eventually won a $100,000 settlement. After stints as a law professor and administrative judge at the federal Department of Labor, Davis and his wife moved to Asheville last year. The couple have an adult daughter who lives outside Washington.

Restoring ethics’

Some criticize Davis as a newcomer to the 11th District. He says that after serving his country for more than 30 years, “I feel like I’ve got too much invested to let it go down the drain” under Trump and his GOP allies.

Davis says his first priority would be “restoring ethics, integrity and honesty in government.”

He opposes repeal of the Affordable Care Act and favors establishment of a public option whereby people could get insurance from the government or stick with a private plan. He supports several measures to reform law enforcement but also attended a “Back the Blue” pro-police rally earlier this summer.

Davis says he is a gun owner and supports Second Amendment rights but also favors universal background checks for gun buyers and “red flag” laws to prevent some sales. He backs nationwide legalization of marijuana.

He calls Cawthorn “charismatic” but says his opponent is much too far to the right and lacks qualifications to serve in the House.

“When you’re picking folks for an assignment, you look at who’s got the education, experience and training to get the job done,” Davis says.

Cawthorn says Davis’ actions regarding Guantanamo detainees put him “to the left of Obama.”

“His biggest defining factor is that he champions the rights of terrorists, which I think is ridiculous,” Cawthorn says.

More to come

Also on the November ballot will be Tracey DeBruhl, a perennial candidate from Reynolds who is the Libertarian Party nominee, and Green Party candidate Tamara Zwinak from Franklin. Neither has mounted an active campaign. Look for more on candidates’ stances in future issues of Mountain Xpress.

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23 thoughts on “WNC’s congressional seat may truly be in play this year

  1. Harold

    “Send a Fighter to Congress.”

    Is that a joke?

    In any sane and rational world this little wanker wouldn’t even be given the time of day.

    He’s broke, unemployed, and has an extremely questionable relationship with the truth (just like Mark Meadows in that particular regard).

    His ONLY reasons for running are: a) he needs the money b) he needs the money and c) he needs the money.

    He knows nothing and is nothing.

    • dub

      He’s not broke, he’s obviously got a huge trust fund. Look at the $350k+ house he bought in Hendersonville recently. What 24 y/o whose only jobs include chick-fil-a employee and congressional staff has that kind of money? Trust fund babies.

      Why would you run for congress if you had ample access to resources and never had to work a day in your life? He’s obviously a power hungry right wing psycho.

      • luther blissett

        Not a trust fund, but not short of cash. His family got a large insurance settlement after the accident, then sued a lot of people — insurers, but not just insurers. They’re still suing. And based on his deposition, he’s paying his brother to manage his stock portfolio.

        Cawthorn has loaned his campaign $361,000 as of June 30, which is only a little less than it has received in donations. Most of the spending is to Sheridan Strategies LLC in Chicago for consulting and media buys, totalling around $400,000. That’s almost twice as much as Moe Davis has spent on his entire campaign. (Davis has not loaned his campaign anything as of June 30.)

        https://www.fec.gov/data/candidate/H0NC11233/

    • luther blissett

      In fairness he’ll age out of being on his parents’ health insurance next year. (Thanks, Obama.)

      If Davis is smart, he’ll make the race about which candidate is most likely to show up in the district vs showing up on Fox News and being treated as the shiny new face of the Republican Party. He’ll make the race about the district’s needs require someone who doesn’t see the House seat as a platform for personal ambition. NC-11 needs someone boring.

      This is a great summary of the contest, but it also shows that Cawthorn’s habit of obfuscation means all of his claims need to be double- and triple-checked. I’d recommend reading that 2017 deposition:

      https://www.scribd.com/document/471486060/2017-Madison-Cawthorn-deposition

  2. John H

    Interesting how they left out the information that he and his friend were switching seats while driving:

    The lawyer’s questioning about the trip that ended in the crash also revealed that Cawthorn and his friend, Ledford, had engaged in the dangerous practice of switching seats while driving on the highway, from the passenger seat to the driver’s seat and vice versa. There was no suggestion in the deposition that the two friends were changing seats when their SUV crashed, and the state trooper reported no evidence that Ledford, the driver, was impaired by alcohol or other substances.

    Cawthorn said the two “changed positions” while the car was in motion “to save time.” Asked why, he attributed it to being 18 when he, like others of that age, felt “invincible.”

    “But now, looking back obviously, I see that there was some major problems with doing that.”

    https://avlwatchdog.org/candidates-claim-creates-false-impression/

  3. bsummers

    Who will be the first brave young Republican to come right out and say openly that we should give fascism a try?

    • NFB

      Brave Republican? Sadly, that the brave Republicans are the overall small handful who have the guts to publicly refuse to support Trump for reelection. All the other cowards are OK with fascism.

  4. Keith

    If a home schooled student is rejected to one of the best engineering colleges in the world, for failing to meet entrance requirements, how would complaining to his Congressional representative change that?

    • luther blissett

      In fairness: the only way to be admitted to one of the service academies is to be nominated by either a member of Congress or the Vice President. But based on what Cawthorn said in his 2017 deposition, there’s no reason to believe that Meadows could have pulled further strings while following the stated rules. So either Cawthorn is embellishing his bio yet again, or Meadows promised something he couldn’t deliver.

    • henry

      Cawthorn going to the US Naval Academy was never going to happen. All he had left was claiming that somehow Meadows would get him in. Meadows has a very cloudy educational history himself. Meadows was Cawthorn’s cover for his personal failure, that he cannot admit.

  5. RWD

    What I don’t get is this…one gets in an auto accident and comes away with a $6 million settlement. Most people that find themselves in this situation might have an insurance settlement to fix car or pay for some medical expenses.

    Was there another vehicle involved that caused this accident or some other outside entity that influenced / caused the accident ? Did the roadway suddenly put a curve in the straightaway ? Did a farmers prize steer jump into the roadway ? Did the auto suddenly explode as they were driving down the roadway ?

    Was this just a plain ole accident and because of the litigious nature of someone a settlement was arranged ? So for me, and this is my opinion only. Who do I want to represent me in Congress…someone who has documented work experience in the public sector and benefited from both setbacks and accomplishments or someone who has had some shady exposure to public sector work and has benefited from a litigious personality ??

    • luther blissett

      It was a single-vehicle accident. The vehicle was owned by the driver’s father’s RV business, and the insurance policy from Auto-Owners covered the business. The dispute stemmed from Auto-Owners being unwilling to accept a medical records disclosure form signed by Cawthorn’s father because Cawthorn was over 18.

      The litigation is complex with undercurrents of shadiness — it deserves further reporting. Cawthorn sued the RV business, and Auto-Owners provided the business with legal representation, presumably per its policy. Eventually, there was a settlement agreement where the RV business accepted a $30 million consent judgment and assigned Cawthorn the rights to sue Auto-Owners for its conduct during the claim. Auto-Owners paid out the $3 million policy limit, and Cawthorn tried to get the $30 million from Auto-Owners, even though the insurance company was not a signatory to the agreement. This was appealed up to the 11th Circuit in federal court last year, which made its own headlines:

      https://propertycasualtyfocus.com/eleventh-circuit-rejects-insurer-defended-policyholders-bid-to-expand-floridas-bad-faith-excess-judgment-rule-to-include-collusive-settlements-concocted-without-ins/

      In the 2017 deposition, Auto-Owners’ lawyers heavily implied that Cawthorn was well aware that the RV company didn’t have $30 million and that the consent judgment was created to set up a legal fight between Cawthorn and Auto-Owners. [I’m using ‘Cawthorn’ interchangeably here with ‘Cawthorn’s family and lawyers.’]

      The 2019 appeals court decision states as fact that Cawthorn had his feet on the dashboard when the accident took place. (Read the deposition to understand why it was in dispute.) Young people do dumb things. It’s awful when dumb choices have terrible consequences. People shouldn’t be defined by dumb choices. But they also shouldn’t be given positions of huge responsibility when all they have on their resume is bad decisions and extended litigation, especially if it seems that their parents are pulling the strings.

    • Michael Childs

      For me the question is do we want Nancy “Set Up” Pelosi or Kevin McCarthy leading the House. Because Pelosi is one of the most fiercely partisan, irrational, hateful, power-hungry and increasingly far-left people in politics today or any day, it’s an easy decision.

      • NFB

        Oh please. Everything you said about Nancy Pelosi fits at least doubly so for Kevin McCarthy. Just substitute far-right for the “far-left.”

        • Michael Childs

          Wrong. Nancy “Storm Troopers” Pelosi, out there gaming covid-19. Not even close.

      • luther blissett

        Now tell us the 20 Dem-held seats the Republicans will win to give McCarthy the gavel, especially since the Dems are heavily favored to add two NC seats (the 2nd and 6th districts) under the redrawn map.

        https://cookpolitical.com/ratings/house-race-ratings

        I mean, it’s kind of hilarious that conservatives have convinced themselves Pelosi is Hugo Chavez and AOC is Fidel Castro. But anyway: they should give Davis a couple of years and find a qualified candidate for 2022.

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