President Donald Trump’s perfect endorsement record in GOP primary elections crashed with a thud Tuesday night when his choice for an open seat in Western North Carolina was drubbed by a 24-year-old first-time candidate.
The result of the GOP primary runoff in North Carolina’s 11th Congressional District was a major embarrassment for Trump’s new chief of staff, Mark Meadows, with many senior Republicans punting the blame toward him.
Trump and Meadows went all in for Lynda Bennett, a real-estate agent who is a close friend of the Meadows, only to see her routed by Madison Cawthorn, a businessman who was partially paralyzed in a car accident. Cawthorn led Bennett by around 30 points when The Associated Press called the race.
The president tweeted out his endorsement of Bennett in early June, and he released a robocall saying she would help him “fight crazy Nancy Pelosi and that radical socialist liberal group trying to destroy our country.” House Freedom Action, a leadership PAC aligned with the former congressman, spent nearly $500,000 on the airwaves to boost Bennett.
Meanwhile, local Republicans in the district had accused Meadows of timing his eleventh-hour retirement last December to help Bennett replace him in Congress. In the days leading up to the North Carolina runoff, local Republicans said Cawthorn’s campaign had more grassroots energy and some predicted that Bennett might suffer from Meadows’ heavy-handed attempts to help her.
In an interview after his win Tuesday night, Cawthorn said he did not believe his victory should cast doubt on Trump’s sway and vowed to support him in Congress.
“I don’t think this was a referendum on how much influence the president has. I think the people of Western North Carolina are very discerning, and they just wanted to send someone who they thought would represent them best,” he said, adding, “There will be no stronger supporter of the president than me.”
The result was a blow to Trump, who has boasted about having a perfect endorsement record in congressional primaries. As word of Bennett’s defeat ricochet around Trump’s orbit Tuesday evening, some close to him wondered how he would take the news.
For Trump, it’s the most striking in a sudden string of downballot setbacks. The North Carolina loss comes less than two weeks after another Trump-endorsed candidate lost his fight for renomination. Rep. Denver Riggleman (R-Va.) lost a district convention attended by roughly 2,500 Republican delegates, many of whom were angered by his officiating a gay wedding last year.
And on Tuesday, Kentucky Rep. Thomas Massie handily won his primary despite clashing with the president this spring. While Trump did not endorse Massie’s opponent, the president called the congressman a “third rate Grandstander” and called for him to be ousted from the GOP after Massie held up a coronavirus aid package.
What should have been a sleepy runoff in a deep-red swath of North Carolina has been mired in controversy from the state. Meadows declared he would retire just a day before the filing deadline, and local Republicans in the district openly suspected that he timed his announcement to benefit Bennett, who seemed to have advance notice.
Bennett’s campaign website domain was registered on Oct. 28 — nearly two months before Meadows announced his surprise retirement. And the domain appeared to have been registered by Scott Meadows, the congressman’s brother. Bennett launched her campaign Facebook page a day before Meadows announced.
Meadows also boxed out several state legislators who might have been eyeing his seat, further boosting Bennett’s chances. He did not reveal he was retiring until two days after the deadline for candidates who had already filed for one office to withdraw and switch to another office.
The congressman did not endorse Bennett until shortly before the March 3 primary, after audio of her bashing Trump began mysteriously circulating around the district.
“It’s edited to make it appear that she’s against the president when she’s actually very much for, and I happen to know that,” Meadows told POLITICO in February.
Bennett came in first place in March but did not clear the 30 percent threshold needed to avoid a runoff.
Cawthorn’s allies used the audio in campaign ads. A spot from Protect Freedom PAC, a libertarian-leaning GOP super PAC with ties to Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), ran an ad in the closing days featuring the clip.