The unexpected primary victory of Madison Cawthorn brought national attention to North Carolina’s 11th congressional district for at least three reasons: Mr. Cawthorn is only 24 years of age; President Trump endorsed his opponent; and that opponent came in first in the original primary, usually a predictor of victory. Because the 11th District is the old seat of Mark Meadows, current White House Chief of Staff, national pundits have already anointed Mr. Cawthorn as heir apparent.
However, those of us who live in the 11th Congressional District don’t think Mr. Cawthorn’s ascension is a slam dunk. True, he has the support of a well-placed campaign manager, who was once Mike Pence’s Chief of Staff. True, he can anticipate considerable downstate and out-of-state money to fund his campaign. And, also true, Trump and Meadows will provide their support. In addition, Mr. Cawthorn has a compelling story of overcoming significant personal tragedy.
However, perhaps unknown to those pundits, things have changed since Mr. Meadows’ last election. First, the district lines have been redrawn to more accurately reflect the region. A giant swath of Buncombe County, containing the progressive city of Asheville, has been reincorporated within it, a consequence of a court review of GOP gerrymandering. Although the district elected Republican Charles Taylor to multiple terms with Asheville included, Heath Schuler, a dubious Democrat, but a Democrat all the same, held the seat for six years thereafter. Meadows’ rise coincided with the extreme gerrymandering.
Second, the number of more independent and socially liberal outsiders in the district has increased over time. Granted, some of those outsiders are wealthy Republican southerners seeking summer retirement relief in the mountains, but many of them are attracted to the outdoor opportunities of the region or the progressive vibe of Asheville. They tend to be environmentalists, rather than climate deniers. It is not an accident that the 11th district is home to several independent book stores, multiple community theatres, a vibrant music scene and many craft breweries.
Third, our current governor polled ahead of Hillary Clinton in the district and is again on the ticket in 2020. In addition, the most recent polls have Biden leading Trump statewide and Cal Cunningham ahead of Thom Tillis in the US Senate race. Their presence on the ballot is likely to persuade more independent voters to continue voting Democratic for other offices.
Fourth, Trump’s trendlines are all heading into negative territory. Even in North Carolina he is increasingly unpopular, as his positions are often contrary to those held by middle-roaders. For example, we have a significant Latinx presence in the 11th District, some of whom are undocumented and many of whom are DACA recipients. Those workers are important players in both our agriculture and construction industries; their work ethic is respected here. Trump has asked the Supreme Court to void the Affordable Care Act, yet that is the way many of our residents get health insurance. His performance during the COVID-19 pandemic has devastated the service sector economy on which much of our region is dependent. My home county has seen three demonstrations in response to George Floyd’s murder, each one bigger than the last. That has happened in a very rural southern Appalachian county with fewer than 2% black residents; the demonstrations have been overwhelmingly white and, significantly, young.
Fifth, Trump himself is no longer a novelty. The con game he has run for the past several years will have to weather more attacks during the campaign. For example, both James Mattis and John Kelly, neither of whom could be considered a liberal, have recently criticized him. Both Michel Cohen, his former fixer, and Mary Trump, his niece, have tell-all books coming out in late summer. In his recently published book, John Bolton revealed that the President is both ignorant and selfish. Trump’s tendency to word salad non-responses, even to softball questions from friendly interviewers, no longer plays well with unaffiliated voters. His childish name-calling becomes more childish and less effective daily. His lies mount. His ineffectiveness is palpable. Toto has pulled back the curtain and found that the Wizard of Oz is a very small man, indeed. Our President’s behavior is unlikely to improve. Mr. Cawthorn is a Trumper and that will become more a liability with each day we move toward the November election.
Sixth, we have a superior Democratic candidate running for Meadows’ old seat, who will provide both an ideological and experiential contrast to Mr. Cawthorn. Moe Davis is a 25-year veteran of the Air Force. He was the former Chief Prosecutor at Guantanamo Bay, where he refused to use evidence obtained through torture. He has appeared as an expert on national security on networks ranging from MSNBC to Fox; yes, that Fox. He knows what congressional representatives do, so he can hit the ground running. He has been endorsed by, among other organizations, VoteVets, the North Carolina Association of Educators, the AFL-CIO Western North Carolina Labor Council, Planned Parenthood Action Fund, Equality NC and the Sierra Club. Unlike Heath Schuler, his policy positions are attuned to those held by the Democratic Party’s base. He is also gaining endorsements from local Republicans, like Bob Orr, who was a 2008 GOP candidate for Governor. Davis is articulate, personable, and responsive.
So, to those who have already written off North Carolina’s 11th Congressional district, you might want to pause your pen. We may be headed for a wave election and we Democrats in North Carolina’s 11th District have a good chance to be part of that wave.