Rep. Madison Cawthorn’s (RN.C.) unfounded allegations of being invited to orgies in Washington and seeing people do cocaine is prompting condemnation from his state’s GOP senators, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) and other Republicans.
The 26-year-old first-term lawmaker has been a minor irritation to some Republicans since he joined the House in 2021, but the most recent remarks have put tempers at the boiling point for House Republicans. They also come as an eight-way Republican primary for his seat ramps up.
There is just a month and a half to go until the May 17 primary, and Cawthorn needs to secure at least 30 percent support in order to avoid a primary runoff.
But with the wave of recent controversies and a lack of allies in the Republican establishment in Washington or in his state, political operatives and primary opponents think he has a good chance of losing his seat.
“The negatives that Cawthorn are incurring are the worst kind of negatives an incumbent can incur, and those are the ones that are self-inflicted,” a longtime Republican political operative in North Carolina told The Hill.
It’s a running joke in Washington that the HBO comedy “Veep” much more accurately depicts lawmakers and administration officials than the provocative drama “House of Cards” on Netflix.
But when Cawthorn was asked on the “Warrior Poet Society” podcast last week if “House of Cards” was “closer to a documentary,” he leaned in to its dark portrayal of Washington society.
“All of the sudden you get invited to, ‘Well hey, we’re going to have kind of a sexual get together at one of our homes, you should come’ … and then you realize they are asking you to come to an orgy ,” Cawthorn said, adding that people who advocate for addiction treatment will do “a key bump of cocaine right in front of you.”
That frustrated Republican members, who said that they started getting questions about whether they attend orgies. Some said Cawthorn needs to name names if he is going to make such an allegation, and many suspect it is simply made up.
Rep. Steve Womack (R-Ark.) brought his concerns about Cawthon up in Tuesday’s House Republican Conference meeting, which Cawthorn did not attend.
“The only orgy I’m aware of in DC is an orgy of spending,” Rep. Dan Bishop (RN.C.) told The Hill.
Cawthorn’s office declined to comment for this story.
The firestorm over the “orgy” remarks is just the latest in a line of headaches that Cawthorn has caused McCarthy.
Earlier in the month, Cawthorn called Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky a “thug,” prompting a rebuke from McCarthy. He was also recently charged with driving with a revoked license and caused a stir when he likely broke House rules by bringing Tennessee congressional candidate Robby Starbuck onto the House floor in February.
McCarthy spoke to Cawthorn on Wednesday. He told reporters that Cawthorn had “no evidence behind the statements” about orgies and cocaine and that Cawthorn has “got to turn himself around.” The Republican leader did not rule out further disciplinary action for Cawthorn.
“He’s lost my trust, and he’s going to have to earn it back,” McCarthy said.
Criticism did not stop in the lower chamber. Sen. Richard Burr (RN.C.) told NBC News that Cawthorn has “been an embarrassment at times.” Sen. Thom Tillis (RN.C.) told CNN that the orgy comment was the latest “silly statement” from Cawthorn.
“People in the district are going to have to vote for him, and I would ask them to look at his record and ask what has he done since he’s been here,” Tillis said, adding that Cawthorn has accomplished “not a lot, in my opinion.”
Cawthorn raised nearly $2.9 million in 2021 and has aimed to become an “America First” influencer with endorsements. But his celebrity and fundraising prowess has not translated to having allies in his state.
“I don’t think he’s made many friends amongst elected Republicans, particularly in the state legislature, simply because of the stunt he pulled with wanting to jump from his old congressional district into a newly drawn district,” said J. Michael Bitzer, chair of the political science department at Catawba College in Salisbury, NC
Before redistricting was set, Cawthorn moved to run in a different drafted Charlotte-area district rather than the mountainous 11th District and endorsed longtime Republican activist Michele Woodhouse. But when maps changed, he moved back.
Woodhouse stood her ground, and now Cawthorn’s comments are providing fuel for her campaign against him.
“There’s a new headline of something that he does or says that’s, you know, bizarre comments, bizarre behavior, really unbecoming a member of Congress,” Woodhouse told The Hill.
Another top candidate in the race is state Sen. Chuck Edwards, who has been running television ads in the district for three weeks. He had been less direct about criticizing Cawthorn.
“When he makes headlines, he will be identified as a workhorse, not a show horse,” former North Carolina state Sen. Jim Davis said in an endorsement for Edwards announced Wednesday.
According to a memorandum on an internal March 10-13 poll from the Edwards campaign obtained by The Hill, 73 percent of likely Republican primary voters were less likely to vote for Cawthorn when informed that he proposed a consumption tax in a “New Contract with America ” resolution he released.
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