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The Entirely Predictable Tragedy of Madison Cawthorn

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HENDERSONVILLE, N.C. — In August of 2015, 16 months after the accident that nearly killed him and left him unable to walk, Madison Cawthorn exchanged text messages with the friend who had fallen asleep at the wheel and careened into a concrete wall. Brad Ledford was about to head off to college. Cawthorn was living with his parents in a house that had been renovated for his wheelchair. He was suing Ledford and Ledford’s father’s business for millions of dollars of medical bills. Phone to phone, the teens bantered back and forth about getting together, but after a while it was clear Cawthorn didn’t want to.

Ledford referenced “the tension” of the court case and lamented they couldn’t hang out “the way we used to.”

“I miss everything,” Ledford said.

“I miss everything too,” Cawthorn shot back, unleashing one long, raw message, screens and screens of anguish and loss.

“I miss my life,” he said. “I miss being able to defend myself … being able to dress myself … being able to use the bathroom without someone helping me … I miss not peeing the bed because I have no control over my penis … not having to have pills keep me alive … being able to compete … being checked out by girls … I miss my pride as a man … the pride my father swelled with when he spoke my name … I miss,” he said, “not having to convince myself every day not to pull the trigger and end it all.”

Four and a half years after Cawthorn contemplated suicide, he was running for Congress. Turning a stirring story of conquering adversity into a shocking political victory, he achieved his most ambitious career goal at a staggeringly early age. And within weeks if not days of being sworn in — at 25 years old one of the youngest members in the history of the House — he had put himself on a short list of the chamber’s most known figures. Now, though, heading into his first reelection, Cawthorn is mired in controversy, facing the very real possibility that the end of his electoral career might come as quickly as it began. Emboldened by Cawthorn’s miscues, misdeeds and array of indiscretions, seven Republican challengers have lined up to try to take him out in Tuesday’s primary, party leaders have abandoned him, and other MAGA firebrands are keeping their distance what with the escalating storm of even just the past few months.

Police stopped him for driving with a revoked license (again). Airport security stopped him for trying to bring a gun onto a plane (again). He made outlandish and unsubstantiated comments on an obscure podcast about orgies and cocaine use by his Capitol Hill colleagues. He called the Ukrainian president a “thug,” he suggested Nancy Pelosi was an alcoholic (she doesn’t drink), and the seemingly ceaseless gush of unsavory news has included allegations of insider trading, pictures of shuttered district offices, a leaked tranche of salacious images and videos, and ongoing proof in FEC filings that he’s a prodigious fundraiser but a profligate spender as well. All of this comes on top of multiple women in multiple places accusing him of sexual harassment, his role in the insurrection on Jan. 6 of last year, his growing catalogue of alarming provocations on social media and on the House floor, and his politically imprudent decision to announce he was switching districts only to reverse course. His marriage amidst all this lasted less than a year.

The scope of Cawthorn’s troubles is broad, the implications transcending mere politics. More than 70 interviews with people who know Cawthorn, who have worked for him and against him, allies and enemies, activists and operatives and longtime watchers of politics here in the mountains of western North Carolina, paint a picture of a man in crisis. Cawthorn, they say, is an immature college dropout with a thin work resume, a scofflaw and serial embellisher who was neither qualified nor prepared for the responsibility and the scrutiny that comes with the office he holds. They describe him as a person whose ongoing physical pain and insecurities have made him unusually susceptible to the twisted incentives of a political environment and a Trump-led GOP that prizes perhaps above all else outrage and partisan attack.

“He’s not OK,” said Michele Woodhouse, the former Republican chair of the 11th District who’s now running against him. “He’s very unwell,” said a Republican strategist familiar with Cawthorn. “The recovery is not complete,” said David Rhode, a fellow Hendersonville native who knew Cawthorn pre-politics but now works for Wendy Nevarez, another one of Cawthorn’s current opponents. “He’s got some deep issues that will probably never go away,” said Chuck Archerd, a Republican who ran against him in 2020. “It’s never going to be just totally fine,” said a friend.

The consequences are mounting. Cawthorn long ago lost the trust and support of some of the most influential Republicans in and around Henderson County, without whom he would not have gotten elected in the first place. More recently he’s lost the backing of the top two Republicans in the state Legislature, House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger; the state’s GOP senators, Richard Burr and Thom Tillis; and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy in Washington. And while Cawthorn widely is seen as a favorite of Donald Trump — he spoke at the 2020 Republican National Convention and appeared at a recent Trump rally near Raleigh — Trump in 2022 conspicuously has not issued an endorsement email for Cawthorn the way he has for scores of other candidates.

Polling shows Cawthorn sagging but still in the lead, his closest competitor being Chuck Edwards — a state senator from the area who has the backing of Tillis and some of the best, most experienced strategists in the state. Needing to get at least 30 percent of the vote to avoid a runoff in July, Cawthorn is running out of money, running no ads on local TV and barely campaigning — and all but trying to hide when he does.

Coursing through many of my conversations with people in Cawthorn’s district is a belief that the accident ravaged his body and messed with his psyche but that winning the election has harmed him too.

“Politics is like a vice amplifier, where everybody has a need for affirmation, a need to be important, to be recognized. And then when you’re a young man who has a terrible accident like that, and your identity is kind of stripped from you, all of that is amplified even more,” said a GOP consultant who knows Cawthorn. “I worry about him.”

Well before he ran, won and took office, in his wrenching messages to Ledford that are part of public court records, Cawthorn expressed understandable bitterness, that once he was something, and all of a sudden he was not — and so what was he now?

“I am no longer healing,” he wrote.

“You shattered me completely,” he said. “It’s impossible for me to be around you” because “seeing you just makes me remember who Madison Cawthorn was, and I really miss being him.”

Cawthorn winced.

Three days after he sent the texts to Ledford, some 40 miles south of the site of the accident that broke his ankles, his pelvis and his back, Cawthorn sat in an office in Orlando for a deposition for his (first) auto negligence lawsuit filed against his friend and his friend’s father’s company.

Cawthorn was struggling. The year before, on his 19th birthday, in the last week he spent at the Shepherd Center in Atlanta that specializes in spinal cord injury rehabilitation, he had told his family he would be “standing up for you” the next time they sang him happy birthday. Here he was, though, three weeks past the date he turned 20, the handsome, “charmed” second son of an “upper middle class” financial adviser father and a homemaker mother who doubled as her boys’ teacher, a onetime football linebacker, avid weightlifter and duck-hunter, cheerful Chick-fil-A cashier. He was paraplegic.

“Can you give me,” asked the attorney for Ledford’s father’s company, “a list of 10 things that you enjoyed doing before that you can’t do now?”

“Yes, sir,” said Cawthorn. “I can’t work out. I can’t play football. I can’t stand up and pee. I can’t wake up in the morning by myself. I’ll probably never be able to procreate. I can’t run. I can’t jump. I can’t wrestle with my brother. I can’t get through the day without pain. I can’t wake up in the morning without forgetting I’m paralyzed and also falling out of my bed. I can’t be too far away from my doctors. I can’t climb anything. I can’t go adventuring in places. I can’t hike. I can’t ride horses. I can’t bail hay. Do you want me to continue?”

“You said you can’t procreate,” the lawyer continued. “How do you know that?”

“Just because I can’t.”

“Who has told you?”

“My urologist.”

“That will never change?”

“Everyone is always hopeful, but, I mean, with my injury, it’s unlikely that I’ll walk or procreate or, you know, recover.”

In the course of the deposition, Cawthorn recounted for attorneys the hazy mental snapshots of what little he could recall from the days and weeks after the accident. The helicopter to the hospital with what the Florida Highway Patrol report called “life-threatening” and “incapacitating” injuries. The bright lights above his head.........

© Politico

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