The Republican who kicked fiery Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-N.C.) out of office in a primary on Tuesday night couldn’t be more different from the scandal-plagued, one-term congressman. Here’s what we know about Chuck Edwards, the quiet politician who took on one of the brashest Republican members of Congress and won.
The basics: Edwards is a 61-year-old state senator and native of rural Henderson County, a predominantly White area south of Asheville. He’s a McDonald’s franchise owner and was head of the local chamber of commerce.
He’s generally well-liked by local Republicans: They picked him to fill a vacant Senate seat in 2016 and he’s still in that office. Cawthorn, by contrast, built his one congressional term around taking on top Republicans — he won the seat in 2020 by winning a runoff against the candidate endorsed by President Donald Trump.
ABC 13 News in North Carolina reports that Edwards had been wanting to run for this seat but decided not to when Cawthorn started doing well in 2020.
How he ran his campaign: When Edwards announced his candidacy in November, he thought he wouldn’t be challenging Cawthorn. The lines for congressional districts had changed, and Cawthorn had said he was going to run in a newly created neighboring district. But he changed his mind earlier this year and moved back to his original district.
By then, Cawthorn had seven Republican primary challengers. Political observers thought the divided field would benefit Cawthorn, who was easily the biggest name in the largely Republican, conservative district. (The district includes more-liberal Asheville but also much of rural western North Carolina.)
Edwards got the backing of top North Carolina and Washington Republicans: Cawthorn’s scandals started piling up soon after he got to Congress, and just months before the primary, his Republican enemies saw a bold opening to take him down. In March, Cawthorn started saying things that really angered top Republicans in Washington, like accusing them of hosting orgies and using cocaine and calling Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky a “thug.”
Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) had already been in a feud with Cawthorn for months. He was unhappy with how little he thought Cawthorn was doing for his district, frustrated with the congressman’s flashy style and aghast that Cawthorn attacked him as a “RINO” (Republican in Name Only) at a local GOP event, The Washington Post’s Isaac Arnsdorf reported.
Top House Republicans — who had largely ignored their party’s far-right firebrands, such as Cawthorn and Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene (Ga.) and Lauren Boebert (Colo.) — felt they needed to step in and take on Cawthorn directly. Cawthorn was implicating them in baseless conspiracies, and some of them were starting to receive constituent calls asking whether they were partaking in these alleged activities involving drugs and sex.
“He’s got a lot of members very upset,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said, publicly lecturing him and calling Cawthorn’s claims a lie. Cawthorn never publicly backed down from his claims.
At that point, Edwards hadn’t stood out in fundraising, and in such a crowded primary, it was hard for him to get attention.
But Tillis started openly supporting Edwards and raising money for him. Tillis’s allied super PAC had already been running ads for the candidate, largely by attacking Cawthorn, accusing him of being an “attention-seeking embarrassment in perpetual pursuit of celebrity.” The top two Republicans in North Carolina’s legislature endorsed Edwards. And the North Carolina Republican Party’s open embrace of him, right as primary voters were starting to pay attention, was the boost Edwards needed.
The glaring exception was Trump, who stood by Cawthorn pretty much alone, writing just before the primary: “Recently, he made some foolish mistakes, which I don’t believe he’ll make again … let’s give Madison a second chance!”
How Edwards won the primary: Edwards says he is a Trump supporter — a necessity in a district that voted for Trump over Joe Biden by 10 points in 2020. Here’s what he told the Raleigh News and Observer after his primary win: His first focus is to win the general election. Edwards will face Democrat Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, a minister and LGBTQ activist, so he is heavily favored in this conservative district.
After that, he said, his focus will be on “removing the gavel out of Nancy Pelosi’s hand, and then taking the teleprompter from Joe Biden and restoring the policies that we enjoyed under the Trump administration, to help get this country back on track.”
The Post’s Arnsdorf reported that a Republican polling group, GOPAC, found Edwards rising in popularity in March, right around the time of Cawthorn’s cocaine comments and when House Republicans turned against him.
Edwards ran his own ads attacking Cawthorn, including for spending too much time on social media — he derided Cawthorn as an “Instagram star.”
In the end, it looks like more traditional Republicans showed up to vote out Cawthorn. Edwards outperformed Cawthorn among female voters, reports The Post’s Lenny Bronner, and voters who had a bachelor’s degree or more.
Edwards’s win was probably mostly, if not almost entirely, about kicking out Cawthorn.
Here’s what one voter, Aubrey Woodard, told Arnsdorf before the primary about why he was supporting Edwards: “I thought [Cawthorn] was a shining star, like he was perhaps one of the up-and-coming stars of the party. I’ve not been impressed. The only thing we see coming from him has been something that we’d really rather not be involved in or hear about.”
Edwards’s outright win on Tuesday was even more impressive, given that there were eight Republican candidates in total, and in North Carolina, if one candidate doesn’t get at least 30 percent of the vote, the top two will go to a runoff.