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Scandal-plagued Rep. Madison Cawthorn is ousted in North Carolina primary

Rep. Madison Cawthorn addressed the crowd at a rally for former President Donald Trump on April 9 in Selma, N.C.
Allison Joyce
Getty Images
Rep. Madison Cawthorn addressed the crowd at a rally for former President Donald Trump on April 9 in Selma, N.C.

Updated May 17, 2022 at 11:16 PM ET

Rep. Madison Cawthorn, a freshman Republican who's been beset by scandal since taking office last year, has been ousted in a heated primary in North Carolina's 11th Congressional District, according to a race call from The Associated Press.

Cawthorn lost to state Sen. Chuck Edwards, who had received the backing of some Republicans who had tired of Cawthorn's controversies.

As of the AP race call, Edwards had received more than 33% of the vote, to Cawthorn's nearly 32% of the vote. In North Carolina, a winner just needs to cross a 30% threshold in order to avoid a July runoff election.

The result is a stunning defeat for Cawthorn, who is a fervent supporter of former President Donald Trump — and who had Trump's endorsement.

A member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus who was first elected in 2020 to former Rep. Mark Meadows' seat, Cawthorn faced a crowded field of primary challengers in a district that will likely remain red.

Last fall, Cawthorn indicated he would run in a different district that could have a more favorable map, but reverted course back to run in the 11th District after redistricting shifted the lines. Opponents accused Cawthorn of being willing to abandon his constituents for political expediency.

Scandals pile up

Cawthorn — who at 26 is the youngest member of Congress — had Trump's backing but his path to primary defeat was paved with an increasing number of improprieties in recent months.

In April, he found himself in hot water with GOP leadershipafter making comments — without evidence — that linked his own party with cocaine use and orgies.

His remarks on a podcast prompted outrage from his own colleagues and a condemnation from House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif.

Cawthorn has also been stopped on two separate occasions at airports for carrying a loaded gun, and has been charged twice for driving with a revoked license.

The congressman, who faced sexual misconduct allegations from his time in college, was also the subject of a lewd video that circulated on social media. Cawthorn dismissed the video, in which he appears naked, as "stupid locker room talk between two cousins that grew up like brothers, taken long before I served in Congress."

Cawthorn also said he takes responsibility for various speeding tickets and for bringing a weapon to the airport, saying, "I forgot to disarm before I went through a TSA checkpoint and that's my bad, and I have to own that one."

Cawthorn has also faced backlash for calling Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy a "thug" and for referring to those charged in relation to the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol as "political hostages."

"If our election systems continue to be rigged and continue to be stolen, then it's gonna lead to one place and it's bloodshed," Cawthorn said in August at a local GOP event in Macon County, N.C.

This spring, Cawthornopened a legal expense fund to help defray the costs associated withlegal challenges to his reelection bid, after a nonprofit, citing a constitutional provision, sought to label him an "insurrectionist" for his comments leading up to Jan. 6, and have him disqualified for the ballot.

A federal judge sided with Cawthorn on the ballot challenge.

Cawthorn's antics put him at odds with many in his party, including fellow North Carolinian Thom Tillis, who endorsed Edwards and boosted his candidacy.

Sen. Tillis also called for a bipartisan inquiry by the House Ethics Committee into allegations of Cawthorn participating in insider trading.

Cawthorn has referred to the emergence of various controversies as a "coordinated assault against me" but has maintained that the attention has actually gained him Twitter followers.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Barbara Sprunt is a producer on NPR's Washington desk, where she reports and produces breaking news and feature political content. She formerly produced the NPR Politics Podcast and got her start in radio at as an intern on NPR's Weekend All Things Considered and Tell Me More with Michel Martin. She is an alumnus of the Paul Miller Reporting Fellowship at the National Press Foundation. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Pennsylvania native.