- Scandal-beset GOP Rep. Madison Cawthorn faces seven challengers in the upcoming May 17 primaries.
- Five former campaign volunteers said he turned his back on their North Carolina district and values.
- The volunteers called him "irresponsible" and told Insider they're supporting his primary opponents.
HENDERSONVILLE, North Carolina — When Madison Cawthorn first ran for office in 2020, Bruce Rose spent hours passing out flyers in different counties, knocking on doors, and poll-watching to help someone he felt would be a future conservative star.
His four months volunteering for Cawthorn's campaign consisted of working alongside dozens of fellow Republicans in an environment he recalled as "energetic." Now two years later, Cawthorn is running for reelection.
When Rose looks back at his time helping Cawthorn win his first term, memories he once recalled fondly are now tinged by a sense of betrayal.
"He fooled the hell out of everybody," Rose said. "I despise him … he is a criminal and a performer."
Cawthorn, the youngest member of Congress at 26 and an outspoken conservative, is in the political fight of his life.
Since being elected into office, the police have twice cited the Republican North Carolina lawmaker for bringing a loaded gun to local airports. In March, police charged him with driving with a revoked license —a misdemeanor offense that was just the latest in a series of traffic infractions.
Amid the mounting scandals, of which a leaked nude video may be the latest, five former volunteers have come forward to Insider to say they will be backing his opponents, feeling that he turned his back on their district and conservative values.
"He changed. If you tout the law, you have to stand for the law, and he doesn't," Rose said.
"It's very irresponsible," said April Holsinger, another former campaign volunteer for Cawthorn, referring to the congressman bringing a gun through airport security in his carry-on luggage. "You should know if you have a gun in your bag or not."
Luke Ball, a spokesperson for Madison Cawthorn, told Insider that they "understand a small handful of former volunteers are backing other candidates in the GOP primary, and that they are hoping to tout their candidates to the media."
"That is their prerogative, and we look forward to uniting the NC-11 GOP behind Congressman Cawthorn following a decisive victory on May 11," Ball said in a statement.
'It became all about Madison'
In recent weeks, multiple scandals have erupted involving Cawthorn that have alienated him from members of his own party.
A political action committee filed an ethics complaint against him. North Carolina Republican Sen. Thom Tillis called for a congressional investigation into him after the Washington Examiner reported that Cawthorn may have violated insider trading laws. Retiring Republican Sen. Richard Burr, also of North Carolina, told CNN that "on any given day, he's an embarrassment" after Cawthorn claimed on a podcast in March that he witnessed drug use and suggested that he was invited to an "orgy" by Republican lawmakers.
Another former campaign volunteer, Greg Wiggins, says that when he first met a 24-year old Cawthorn, he thought he was an "energetic young man" and "a great speaker." But now, nearly two years later, he says Cawthorn has changed and will not be voting for him in the primary election on Tuesday.
"He's more interested in hobnobbing with people in Washington than hobnobbing with a farmer over here, or someone that's a plumber, or someone that needs their help like a veteran," Wiggins said. "It became all about Madison and not about district 11."
Several former Cawthorn campaign volunteers told Insider that they were shocked when Cawthorn, after less than a year in office, announced he'd run for a neighboring district being redrawn and that would be even more solidly red. But he backtracked and decided to defend his 11th District seat after the North Carolina Supreme Court struck down the new district.
"It seems like he's forgotten where he comes from and who got him there," Debbie Brogden, a former Cawthorn campaign volunteer, told Insider. "We worked so hard to get him there and wanted him in our district … I just thought it was unfair to us."
The makings of Cawthorn
Before running for office, then 24-year-old Cawthorn was largely unknown. His name ran in the local newspapers when he was 18 years old after a nearly fatal car crash in Florida that left him in a wheelchair.
Cawthorn grew up in the small conservative town of Hendersonville, North Carolina, the state's western region that surrounds the Blue Ridge mountains.
It's a place that was once ranked No. 1 on best places to retire in the state. The downtown area consists of a few blocks of red brick-front stores, small restaurants, vintage clothing, and pawnshops, where local residents idly walk by. On the corner of the Henderson County History Center, a big, light teal clock chimes every hour.
A few blocks away from downtown Hendersonville, red and white flags wave around the high school's huge football field. Cawthorn himself did not attend; he was homeschooled until he went to Patrick Henry College, a private Christian liberal arts school in Northern Virginia.
Before running for Congress, Cawthorn started a real estate investment firm and was a motivational speaker. He wasn't endorsed by any big-name Republicans and ran a grassroots campaign that relied on dozens of volunteers in the community.
Cawthorn made national headlines after winning an election runoff against Lynda Bennett, a real estate agent who was initially endorsed by both then-President Donald Trump and Mark Meadows, his newly installed White House chief of staff who had most recently held the congressional seat.
Brogden told Insider that the first time she met Cawthorn, she was "blown away by his maturity" at such a young age.
"He had this vision of what he wanted for the conservative Americans," she said. "I just was enthralled that somebody that young could be that powerful."
But now, nearly two years later, Brogden says Cawthorn has become unrecognizable to her after his latest run-ins with the police.
"It has been so heartbreaking to watch him turn into what he's turned into," she said.
Other former Cawthorn campaign volunteers say they increasingly believe that Cawthorn's many controversies aren't for show — they represent who he really is.
"He's just an entitled little boy," Rose said, claiming that he is getting in trouble with law enforcement on purpose. "He has not grown into manhood."
Jonathan, another former campaign volunteer who declined to provide his last name for fear of retribution, said friends and people in the Hendersonville community privately warned him about Cawthorn during his first congressional run.
A longtime resident of Hendersonville, Jonathan said he remembers one occasion when someone pulled him aside and told him "you're being fooled" about Cawthorn. The person told him about allegations that Cawthorn had sexually harassed and inappropriately touched women while he was in in college (which Cawthorn has denied).
"I had people in the community that were trying to get me back on track," Jonathan said. "But at that time, I couldn't see past what I thought was going to be something really tremendous and something really good for district 11."
Jonathan said he is still torn about whether Cawthorn changed when he went to Washington or if this has been him all along.
Cawthorn is facing seven Republican challengers in the primary elections. He will need to get more than 30% of the vote during the primary on Tuesday to avoid a runoff election in July. Some of his challengers include Rod Honeycutt, an Army veteran, and North Carolina State Sen. Chuck Edwards, who Tillis is backing.
Several of the former Cawthorn campaign volunteers told Insider that they were going to back Honeycutt in the primary elections.
"He's an honest guy, and is a hard working guy," Wiggins said of Honeycutt. "I think he has integrity."