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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.