With a court-ordered redraw on the horizon, North Carolina’s congressional races have been thrown into turmoil. Candidates don’t know what the final lines will look like, and many will be waiting to see the final lines before making their decision known. With the former 10-3-1 Republican map expected to be redrawn into one that might be 9-5 at best, some Republicans who were expecting to serve in Congress in 2023 are going to be sorely disappointed.
But perhaps the most concerned Republican right now should be Madison Cawthorn. The firebrand conservative was elected in 2020 and has made a name for himself as both a staunch supporter of former President Trump and for other, less political reasons – including allegations of sexual assault and a stated focus on messaging instead of legislation.
At the start of the cycle, Cawthorn made the unusual decision to move to the new Charlotte-based NC-13. But with new lines being drawn, Cawthorn will be faced with a difficult map and a tough decision: which seat to run in. And this decision might leave Cawthorn as the incumbent with the most to lose from the North Carolina Supreme Court’s decision.
1) Return to NC-14
Cawthorn’s most obvious option would be the easiest: abandon his candidacy in Charlotte and return to the Appalachian-based NC-14. It’s hard to imagine any real changes being made to this seat; it was already about as Democratic-friendly as it could be at only Trump+7, slightly more Democratic than the previous cycle’s NC-11. Neither side really has anything to complain with how it was drawn and few, if any, changes are expected to its design.
Cawthorn’s reasoning for leaving this seat seemed clear: it was too competitive for his tastes. While a Trump+7 seat is hardly the most swingy seat in the nation, and even Roy Cooper couldn’t carry it statewide, it’s still a bit too close for comfort for an extremely conservative candidate with a controversial record. It’s not hard to imagine a scenario where a decent Democratic recruit running from the center could have performed better against Cawthorn than left-wing firebrand Moe Davis, most known for his abrasive Twitter presence. A candidate that doesn’t openly call to “crush the necks” of Republicans or compare Trump supporters to Klan members would be well-positioned to at least make a run against the controversial Cawthorn.
It remains unclear if Cawthorn would be willing to return to the seat. It already has strong Republican contenders, including State Senator Chuck Edwards, and Democratic fundraising has dried up since Cawthorn left the seat. A race in NC-14 likely wouldn’t be competitive in 2022, but in a Democratic or neutral environment it may be too close for comfort for Cawthorn.
2) Stay in Charlotte’s NC-13
It remains to be seen exactly how the Charlotte area will be drawn. However, reporting from Carolina Journal indicates NC-13 will be redrawn into a genuinely competitive seat, encompassing Rutherford, Cleveland, Gaston, and Mecklenburg counties. Such a district would likely elect Republicans for several cycles to come, but would have a strong Democratic trend in the long run. It’s also unclear how this redraw might impact Republican Dan Bishop’s candidacy; he is from Mecklenburg County, represented it in the State Senate, and currently represents a large chunk of it in NC-09.
Exactly how close this district will be – or how competitive it is – remains to be seen. But in order to comply with the Supreme Court’s ruling, this seat will almost certainly need to be more competitive than NC-14. Regardless, the redraw of NC-13 would be disastrous for Cawthorn, who would be relocating into a more competitive, blue-trending seat with a staunchly suburban character. It’s unclear if he’d even win a primary here – let alone a general election.
If such a seat were drawn at the start of the cycle, Cawthorn would almost certainly have not relocated to it. It’s clear, then, that staying in Charlotte would be a less than ideal move for Cawthorn – especially if he has to challenge native son Dan Bishop.
3) Relocate to primary Virginia Foxx or Patrick McHenry
The third option Cawthorn has is perhaps the most unlikely of the bunch. It’s entirely unclear how North Carolina’s Piedmont will be drawn; the 2020 map used an unorthodox east/west split instead of the more natural north/south split, giving incumbents Virginia Foxx and Patrick McHenry large chunks of new territory. If 2022 adopts a similar approach, both Representatives will remain in seats that rank among the most Republican in the country.
Although both of these seats would encompass almost entirely new territory for Cawthorn, it is possible he could attempt to primary Foxx or McHenry, utilizing his strong fundraising to target the long-term incumbents. However, such an action would likely be seen extremely negatively by national and state Republicans. While the 78-year old Foxx is likely to end her tenure in Congress sometime this decade, she is the ranking member of the Education and Labor Committee.
The 46-year old McHenry (who is, remarkably, a nine-term incumbent) would be an even more audacious target. McHenry is the ranking member of the crucial Financial Services Committee and has previously served as Chief Deputy Whip of the Republican Caucus; he has been touted as a potential candidate for Speaker of the House in the future. Only one North Carolinian – Nathaniel Macon – has ever served as Speaker, doing so for three terms from 1801-1807.
Attempts to primary either Foxx or McHenry would be seen extremely negatively by fellow Republicans; attempting to unseat future committee chairs is something that would spark a strong reaction in kind to defend them. Even assuming he were to win, Cawthorn would still be at the mercy of a potential redraw later in the decade.
No Good Options
At this point, the issue facing Madison Cawthorn should be abundantly clear: he has no great options for 2022. If his concern is competitive districts, nothing about NC-14 will have changed; if he wants to remain closer to Charlotte, he’ll have to sacrifice safer turf for blue-trending areas. And challenging another Republican seems almost out of the question, as both Foxx and McHenry are solidly entrenched and supported by state and national Republicans.
If I were to guess what Cawthorn might do next, I’d say a return to NC-14 is the likeliest option. But it’s by no means a done deal, and even a run there could yield unexpected issues in a contested primary. Regardless of how the final map looks, one thing is clear: Madison Cawthorn’s position will be far more tenuous than it was before.