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'Hot mess' Madison Cawthorn faces judgment day in North Carolina

In the home stretch, political insiders in the state say it’s still the first-term lawmaker's race to lose — but if he does, it will be his own fault.

HENDERSONVILLE, N.C. — In little more than a year in Congress, Rep. Madison Cawthorn, R-N.C., has become famous in political circles. On Tuesday, that could cost him his job.

"He's a hot mess," Susan Newman, 53, a teacher from nearby Laurel Park who voted for Cawthorn two years ago, said in the parking lot of an Ingles grocery store. "I really don’t see him doing anything in the district — and he just keeps getting in trouble."

That sentiment, echoed by several voters here who spoke to NBC News, suggests Cawthorn is in danger of getting the boot in Tuesday's hotly contested Republican primary for the 11th District seat.

But the 26-year-old first-term lawmaker has a lot going for him: the advantages of incumbency, the support of former President Donald Trump and a field of rivals so crowded that it may be hard for any one of them to beat him.

Political insiders here say it's Cawthorn's race to lose — and if he does, it will be his own fault.

That's in part because of a striking pattern of unusual behavior: speeding without a valid driver’s license; taking a firearm through security at an airport; wearing lingerie in photos; appearing in a video in which a staffer pantomimes a grab for his groin; gyrating naked on top of another man in bed; accusing unnamed lawmakers of inhaling cocaine and inviting him to an orgy; promoting a cryptocurrency in ways that prompted critics to claim he engaged in insider trading; and calling Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy “a thug.”

Cawthorn taped a seven-minute-plus video March 4 to respond to his various lapses in judgment, run-ins with the law and allegations that he says are untrue or misleading. He took responsibility for speeding and the gun infraction, but rebutted the rest.

“I’ve really never seen the swamp launch such a coordinated attack against any individual in politics except for Donald Trump,” Cawthorn said, pointing to American Muckrakers, a super PAC set up to help oust him as the source of his woe.

The district has a significant Republican lean — rated at plus-14 for the GOP by the site FiveThirtyEight — which means that the Democratic nominee will have an uphill battle to make the race competitive in November. Buncombe County Commissioner Jasmine Beach-Ferrara has out raised her nearest competitor in a crowded Democratic field by a 4-to-1 margin.

Cawthorn's adversaries hope a perception has taken hold that he’s courted fame at the expense of doing the basic job of a congressman — from failing to show up to vote in Washington to ignoring requests to help constituents.

“What folks are concerned with here is they don’t feel that they have a voice in Washington, D.C., because our congressman has been jet-setting around the country, getting involved in other races, going to other events,” state Sen. Chuck Edwards, the most prominent of seven Republican challengers, said in an interview at the Miles River Restaurant here as Dolly Parton’s workaday “9 to 5” played in the background.

The busy GOP field, which also includes well-funded Pisgah Inn operator Bruce O'Connell, could end up being the saving grace for Cawthorn.

In North Carolina, a candidate can win the primary outright — avoiding a runoff — by placing first with more than 30 percent of the vote. That means Cawthorn just needs a substantial plurality to take the nomination.

"We're not listening to the Beltway media's analysis of our race; we see our argument winning in western North Carolina," Cawthorn spokesman Luke Ball said in an email exchange with NBC News.

That argument includes Cawthorn's "New Contract With America," which calls for reducing annual federal spending by one-third by 2031, replacing the federal income tax with a flat tax or consumption tax, and imposing term limits on members of Congress, among other policies.

Against the backdrop of a pending reversal of the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court ruling that banned states from outlawing abortion, Cawthorn introduced a bill Wednesday that would require the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "to the extent possible," to include aborted fetuses in its statistics on death rates. He calls it the SOULs Act.

"I receive feedback from my constituents daily," Cawthorn said in an emailed response to the question of what he will do differently if he is re-elected. "Their input deeply impacts my policy positions and how I operate in Washington."

Edwards and his supporters are confident — based on public and internal polling — that Cawthorn is slipping and Edwards is rising. Both camps say it is a two-man race for first place.

While Edwards boasts one of the more conservative records in the North Carolina Legislature, his state Senate district accounts for only about 40 percent of the newly reconfigured congressional district. He decided to run when Cawthorn initially chose to seek election in a neighboring district and stayed in the race after the incumbent changed his mind.

Both camps say Cawthorn's switcheroo hurt him with voters in this district, which takes in the state's mountainous westernmost counties. That laid a predicate for criticism that the incumbent isn't paying enough attention to his constituents, and some of them say that's true.

Kirby Johnson, owner of the sprawling Johnson Family Farm here, said he tried and failed to get Cawthorn to help with federal assistance for one of his employees.

“I’ve only asked him for one thing, and I didn’t get it — never heard a word,” Johnson said in a telephone interview. Johnson initially contributed money to Cawthorn’s re-election effort but has since given to Edwards. “I love Madison, but I feel a little bit disappointed.”

As a candidate in 2020, Cawthorn ripped the House's practice of allowing lawmakers to vote by proxy during the pandemic. "Leaders show up no matter how uncertain the times are," he wrote on Twitter. "The Democrats are cowards for hiding and not showing up to work."

But since taking office in January 2021, Cawthorn has sent two dozen letters to Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., designating various colleagues to vote for him because he is "unable to physically attend proceedings in the House Chamber due to the ongoing public health emergency."

That's what first caught the attention of a group of national political operatives that has been working to oust him.

"From the start, our focus was votes," said David Wheeler, president of American Muckrakers, a super PAC that runs the website and has dished some of the dirt on Cawthorn that is now circulating internationally. "We’ve done a good job of pointing out things that Cawthorn’s not going to talk about and that some of his opponents are afraid to talk about."

Ball declined to comment on why Cawthorn has chosen to cast votes by proxy.

While Cawthorn's reputation for the outlandish now precedes him, even at home, it's not a deal-killer for the Trump base that surrounds him.

"I'm hearing all kinds of weird things about him," said Bill Cunningham, a retired nurse who lives in Hendersonville and backs Cawthorn. "He seems like a MAGA guy. That's all right."

Still, Cunningham said, he's open to alternatives.

"Before I vote, I'm going to check the other candidates."

Cawthorn's courtship of the limelight has been a double-edged sword, even with some supporters like James Parkey, a 58-year-old truck driver from Candler.

Parkey likes that Cawthorn is willing to challenge the status quo, he said while smoking a cigar at Casablanca, a bar in the Biltmore Village section of Asheville.

"He does tend to speak his mind," Parkey said. But "I don't know if he has any sort of pull, because he's ticked off both sides of the aisle."

He added that he's not worried about the videos and the photograph of Cawthorn in lingerie: "What a politician does on his personal time is his business," Parkey said.

The question is whether Cawthorn has fallen far enough, fast enough to lose on Tuesday — and it's not clear, even to his rivals, that will happen.

"Of course, we’d rather have more time," Edwards said.