About Madison Cawthorn’s Road Trip to Johnston County

by Christopher Cooper

all goes according to plan, this evening Republican member of Congress Madison Cawthorn will speak at a Johnston County School Board Meeting and ask the board
to reverse their decision to require face masks in schools. According to a flier advertising the event, Cawthorn will park at either the fast food parking lot “in front of the outlets” or Becky’s Log Cabin Motel in
Smithfield and join a few hundred protestors to fight for “PARENT’S CHOICE on
masks, vaccines, and CRT in schools.” Robby Starbuck, a congressional candidate
from Tennessee who once produced the official video for the Spongebob Movie
will also be offering his advice to the 7 member school board in
Johnston County.

If you’re
thinking that this seems a little… geographically puzzling, you’re right.  Johnston County is located in the 7th congressional
district, whereas Cawthorn represents the 11th congressional
district. To get from Smithfield to Cawthorn’s home in Henderson County, head West and in about four
and a half hours
(assuming you don’t need to stop for gas or a bite to eat),
you’d finally enter the friendly confines of Hendersonville, NC. Along the way, you’ll pass
through 6 other congressional districts. 

why would a member of Congress drive hundreds of miles out of his district to join a political novice from Tennessee and a few
hundred other protestors to weigh in on a school board decision that doesn’t
fall under even the most generous view of congressional power?   

to sound too meta, but the primary answer is that we’re talking about it. And by
“we” I don’t just mean the readers of this blog, but rather everyone who covers, follows, or practices NC politics. Cawthorn’s trip to Johnston County has been covered in
media outlets across the state, and has spawned enough Twitter traffic to rival
an early season Duke/UNC game. The attention is the point. And it’s working.

If the attention is both the means and the primary end, then fundraising is a secondary goal–and one that will likely be successful. Cawthorn
raised over $1.7 million through June 30 of this year—a sum that dwarfs the receipts
from established Republican members of Congress like Patrick
and Virginia
. When the fundraising numbers are revealed from September, 2021, I’ll
bet you a beer (or ginger ale if that’s more your speed) at any North Carolina brewery
that the Johnston County event will spark a pop in Cawthorn’s fundraising—a cash infusion that
would come in handy for any candidate, but particularly one with Cawthorn’s burn

also seems likely that Cawthorn’s political aspirations extend past NC-11, making
this out-of-district attention grab a little less confusing that it would be
for a member of Congress who has no intention of running in higher office. In
four years Cawthorn will be 30 years old and eligible to run for the US Senate,
an office that will be up for re-election in 2026. While the Senate incumbent Thom Tillis’ stature within the Republican
Party would stop most Republican members of Congress from seeking the seat, Cawthorn has not been shy about criticizing Republican party
leadership and recently called Tillis “a
terrible campaigner and a complete RINO
” [Republican in Name Only]. It’s
not much of a stretch to think that Cawthorn has his eyes on his seat.

social media branding also reinforces the notion that a trip to Johnston County,
while not helpful to his NC-11 constituents, may play into larger, statewide political
aspirations. His Twitter handle is “CawthornforNC,” not “CawthornforNC11” or “CawthornforWNC.”
While this might be dismissed as a coincidence or a small detail that should be ignored,
Cawthorn’s behavior and decision-making suggests that one thing he is unusually
attuned to is branding. After all, he built his team around “comms, not

the end, Madison Cawthorn’s visit to a school board meeting hours away from his
home will not further his legislative goals or move the policy needle for constituents
in his district, but it will further his brand as a national candidate who is, in
his own words, “probably the
most conservative person in Congress
.” And that, is precisely the point.


Cooper is the Madison Distinguished Professor of Political Science and
Public Affairs at Western Carolina University. He tweets at

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