Two very different scenes developed in Hendersonville on Tuesday as a pair of rivals faced off for the title of GOP nominee to represent this quiet part of western North Carolina in the House of Representatives.
With the scenic Blue Ridge mountains rising in the background, state senator Chuck Edwards gathered with supporters at a small lodge with a man-made waterfall on the city’s outskirts, awaiting the night that could send him hundreds of miles away to Washington.
Across town at a small auto detailer and tire shop rented out by his campaign, Madison Cawthorn huddled with close allies and awaited his fate, left to the hands of voters in North Carolina’s 11th congressional district.
That fate was revealed shortly before 10pm on Tuesday evening as networks began calling the race and it became clear that first-term congressman Mr Cawthorn was not even going to make it to a June runoff.
While this is a truly embarrassing result for an incumbent congressman of any stature, it was particularly so for someone with as national a presence as Mr Cawthorn – doubly due to continued support from GOP kingmaker and Mar-a-Lago baron Donald Trump, who has lorded over the GOP and primary races virtually since the day he left the White House.
Despite a slew of scandals and a feud with House Republican leadership – which could easily have played into his hands among the party’s anti-establishment base – Mr Cawthorn maintained support from Mr Trump throughout his campaign right up to Tuesday’s primary.
A day earlier, however, Mr Trump made his thoughts clear on his support, with a statement that confirmed his continued endorsement but also rebuking the congressman harshly for “foolish” mistakes.
Those mistakes ended his bid for reelection unceremoniously. Mr Cawthorn made brief remarks to gathered supporters as the race concluded, then sped away with staffers minutes later and apparently called his top opponent to concede.
“It is what it is,” a Cawthorn staffer who refused to give his name told The Independent. They did not offer a set time for when Mr Cawthorn would make longer remarks addressing his defeat, adding only: “Maybe something tomorrow”.
As a handful of supporters left and a few journalists remained, police, working with the event’s organisers, gathered en masse and forced them to leave the property, apparently spurred on by efforts of the media to take pictures of the desolate scene.
Journalists were not even allowed inside the main building and asked to remain outside for the entirety of the event, with campaign staffers and police closely watching attendees to ensure only those with accredited wristbands from the campaign were even allowed in the parking lot.
In contrast, Mr Edwards’ campaign was headquartered at The Lodge at Flat Rock where the hotel’s unique open front doorway design and lounge areas – including one by the waterfall – painted a more typical picture of one that came onto Tuesday expecting victory was possible and wanted people to see a triumphant candidate headed to the general election.
The elephant in the room, of course, was Mr Cawthorn’s numerous scandals including, most prominently, an ongoing leak of sexually explicit and embarasssing videos of the congressman released by a super PAC opposing his reelection.
Mr Edwards himself never mentioned the issues, either in comments to supporters or reporters, but alluded to them during a press gaggle for a brief moment as he touted his own track record.
“I think the voters in the mountains recognised that we needed someone with a proven track record in Washington DC,” he said shortly after 10.30pm. “I’ve had the opportunity to show them that track record” in the state senate, he pointed out.
His supporters echoed those same praises, while also hinting that Mr Cawthorn’s propensity for making headlines was not a favourable characterstic in their district.
“He’s not flamboyant,” Melody Haltmann told The Independent outside Mr Edwards’s event.
She added that she and her husband Bob had both voted for and donated to Mr Cawthorn in 2020, but were turned off from doing so in part due to his behaviour and also due to the strength of his main rival.
Mr Cawthorn’s scandals “screwed” him in the end, Ms Haltmann’s husband added in an interview.
“The fact that Madison unfortunately had a bombed marriage, that didn’t look very mature,” he explained.
But the pair added that despite everything, they’d be open to supporting the ousted freshman congressman again, though potentially for a position with less media attention and far different responsibilities.
A “lack of being in politics for a long time” had hurt him, they said.
“I hope that Madison continues his political life,” Ms Haltmann said. “I think that in the end, he would have done better if he had started at a state level or a county level [seat].”
“I hope we see him come back,” she added. “He’s got a big, long runway ahead of him.”
One more senior campaign volunteer told The Independent she was “exhilarated” watching the results come in from the lobby of The Lodge, where Mr Edwards’ supporters enjoyed a small buffet and commiserated over the results across the state.
Loyalty to Donald Trump – despite his endorsement of Mr Cawthorn – was high and supporters of Mr Edwards pointed mainly to Mr Cawthorn and Mr Edwards’ respective records as their reasons for turning out in interviews.
In other conversations, however, Mr Cawthorn’s scandals were clearly in mind, with Edwards-endorsing state representative Jake Johnson even declaring there had just been “one video too many” released involving the congressman.
“Who knows what other videos are out there,” another supporter quipped to him in response, evoking a laugh and simultaneous moment of exasperation.
Mr Edwards ended the night by shaking hands with many supporters in the room and vowed to reporters that he would help Republicans take back the House and “take the teleprompter [away] from” from Joe Biden.
And in an olive branch to the former president, Mr Edwards said he hoped to restore parts of the Trump agenda, including most prominently funding for the border wall, through Congress.
We’ve got “to help this country get back on track” and restore “the policies we enjoyed under the Trump administration”, he said.
“We were on our way to oil independence and Americans were just in a good place. We [Republicans] need to get back in, and we need to get better quickly,” he concluded.