Twenty-four-year-old Madison Cawthorn surprised the experts Tuesday by winning the Republican primary for the safely GOP North Carolina 11th Congressional District, defeating a candidate handpicked by White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows and endorsed by President Trump. The soon-to-be youngest member of Congress, however, will have to learn how to communicate with his fellow millennials if he is to become more than just another conservative backbencher.
Cawthorn won his race the old-fashioned way, with local roots, an inspirational story and beliefs that resonated with the voters. Cawthorn’s introductory video tells his tale: “An eighth-generation resident of the 11th district,” Cawthorn was set to go to the Naval Academy when a horrible car crash left him partially paralyzed. Cawthorn fought back to regain his health and started a local real estate company. He ran as a person who “can relate to people who feel like they’ve been dealt a bad hand, who feel like they’ve been left behind.” He said he was “pro-Trump, pro-life and pro-Second Amendment” and would be “a fighter for faith, family, and freedom.” As a local boy with hardline conservative values, it’s almost more surprising that he wasn’t the favorite all along.
He also was helped by the deep unpopularity of the favorite, Lynda Bennett. She had purchased a campaign domain name and set up a campaign Facebook page before Meadows announced the surprising news that he wasn’t filing for reelection. Meadows denied that he had timed his decision to help Bennett, a longtime friend of his wife, but many local Republicans never believed the denials. Bennett was hurt by comments she reportedly made in 2016, saying she was a “Never Trump” person, comments used in a pro-Cawthorn ad. Seven of the 10 other candidates who lost in the first round endorsed Cawthorn in the runoff, a telling sign that Bennett’s D.C. strength had riled the people she wanted to represent.
Cawthorn says he wants to be someone who can reach out to young voters and explain why the Republican Party and conservative ideas are best. That’s an appealing message for many conservatives, who want to believe that young people are attracted to the left mainly because, in the words of one endorser, they’re “simply repeating what they’re being told” by the media, their teachers and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.). But Cawthorn will have to do more than simply cite Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan, as he did in his campaign video. He will have to address the underlying reasons the Democratic Party attracts young people.
Polls show that millennials hold a wide range of generally liberal views. One poll taken by a Democratic firm found that millennials favor greater government involvement on a range of issues and value equality and fairness much more than faith or patriotism. The Pew Research Center has found that 36 percent of younger millennials have no particular religion and that fewer than half are both white and Christian. Even evangelical Protestants between 18 and 29 favor same-sex marriage and stronger environmental laws, and they favor a smaller government by only a 5-4 margin. Young Catholic, mainline Protestant and non-religious 18-to-29-year-olds all hold views well to the left of young evangelicals.
Millennials and those in the next generation, Generation Z, are also quite liberal on race and social matters. The Pew Research Center has found that these generations have the most approving views on transgender issues and on racial issues such as discrimination and intermarriage. They also think same-sex marriage is a good thing for society while baby boomers and the Silent Generation are either neutral or think it is bad for society. Significant minorities of millennials hold views similar to their more conservative parents, like Cawthorn, but they are definitely a minority.
Thus, Cawthorn can become a leader among that minority of millennials who already agree with him, using social media and other communication methods favored by the young to share his views. But he and his followers will remain a minority unless he takes the harder path of trying to convert younger voters who don’t already agree with him by showing how their values are better served within conservatism. To do that, he will have to show empathy with and enthusiasm for diversity and social action in the way that Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) does, which necessarily will diverge from some of the old verities many of his constituents profess.
Cawthorn’s victory could be just another political upset. Whether it means more than that will depend on whether this young man can again demonstrate grit and courage to confront a difficult challenge and beat the odds.
Watch Opinions videos:
Election 2020: Biden defeats Trump
Election results under attack: Here are the facts