By Jim Ellis
Nov. 15, 2021 — With the newly enacted North Carolina congressional map being vetted and analyzed, candidates for the various districts are beginning to come forth. One surprising move is the decision from freshman Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-Hendersonville) to run in new District 13 instead of where his home and the majority of his current constituents reside, in new District 14.Cawthorn, at at the age of 26, is the youngest member of Congress; he was elected to represent the 11th District in 2020, succeeding Mark Meadows, the former Trump chief of staff who left the US House to enter the White House. The 11th has traditionally been the number for the district that sits in the Tar Heel State’s far western corner, anchored in Asheville and nestled among the Virginia, Tennessee, Georgia, and South Carolina borders, but the newly enacted congressional map changes its number to 14.
Though the seat in its present configuration has become strongly Republican, that was not always the case. Throughout the 1980’s the district became one of the most politically marginal CDs in the country. During that entire decade, the 11th switched repeatedly back and forth between Democrat James Clarke and Republican Billy Hendon.
Once businessman and former state legislator Charles Taylor defeated Rep. Clarke in 1990, he was able to hold the district for eight consecutive terms until losing in 2006 to Democrat Heath Shuler, the former star University of Tennessee quarterback and NFL player. Shuler represented the district for three terms before retiring, leading to Meadows winning the first of his four elections. Rep. Cawthorn then recorded a 55-42 percent win in 2020 to keep the seat in the Republican column.
The new iteration of the westernmost North Carolina district returns to a more politically marginal status with a statistical history producing Republican victories in the low 50s rather than the high 50s. The adjacent new open 13th District, which annexes the western part of the Charlotte metropolitan area and moves to the Buncombe County line, becomes the region’s new safe Republican seat.
It appears that the new 13th was drawn for state House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Cleveland County), whose 111th state House District lies wholly contained in the middle of the new 13th Congressional, but that plan changed last week. Moore released a statement saying he would seek another term as House Speaker rather than run for Congress.
Prior to Speaker Moore issuing his statement, Rep. Cawthorn issued a thinly veiled public challenge to the party leader, saying, “knowing the political realities of the 13th District, I am afraid that another establishment, go-along to get-along Republican would prevail there. I will not let that happen.”
In his brief political career, Rep. Cawthorn has shown that he is not afraid of challenging the Republican establishment. Running against Rep. Meadows’ hand-picked candidate, former GOP county chairman Lynda Bennett who then-President Trump endorsed, Cawthorn, wheel chair bound after a car accident and telling a compelling story, qualified for the runoff in a field of 12 candidates and then won the subsequent intra-party vote in a landslide 2:1 margin.
His latest establishment challenge appears to have paid off, at least in the early going. It remains to be seen who now might emerge as a Republican candidate against Cawthorn as he moves into a new district, albeit one that has approximately 130,000 people he currently represents. Prior to the Cawthorn announcement, former Mecklenburg County Commissioner Karen Bentley (R) had declared her CD-13 candidacy.
Final decisions about who is running where will have to be made relatively quickly. The North Carolina candidate filing deadline is Dec. 17 for the March 8, 2022 partisan primary. Under the state’s election law, if no candidate receives at least 30 percent of the vote in the first election, a secondary runoff election will be held between the top two finishers on May 17th.
The new North Carolina map is controversial in that it defies what the state Supreme Court ordered for the 2020 election cycle and puts back one of the two Republican seats the court drew for the Democrats. We can expect multiple lawsuits to be filed challenging various aspects of this map. The new Republican chief justice, however, will appoint the three-judge panel to hear the redistricting cases, so the legal path for the maps is quite different in 2021 when compared to 2019.
With legal challenges to the newly enacted congressional map, undoubtedly one involving Rep. G.K. Butterfield’s (D-Wilson) new 2nd District that makes the state’s previous most African American district more competitive, the four open seats, and now the Cawthorn situation, many unanswered questions for Tar Heel State congressional politics are posed along with a great deal of political uncertainty. This state’s politics will be heavily monitored in all quarters during the early part of next year.