When Mark Meadows resigned from Congress on March 30 to become White House chief of staff, he vacated a coveted seat. North Carolina’s recently redrawn 11th Congressional District encompasses most of the state’s mountainous western region and tilts Republican despite the liberal city of Asheville at its center.
Of the 12 candidates on the Republican primary ballot in March, the only two who earned more than 20% of the vote were 62-year-old businesswoman Lynda Bennett and Madison Cawthorn, who will not meet the constitutional age requirement for Congress until his 25th birthday on Aug. 1. Because neither broke the requisite 30%, the contest to replace Meadows has led to a June 23 runoff election that will pit two generations of the GOP against each other.
Cawthorn and his story are well known in western North Carolina, where his familial roots extend to the Revolutionary War. Once a staffer for Meadows, he was nominated by the former congressman to attend the U.S. Naval Academy, but his plans came crashing down on April 3, 2014, when a catastrophic car accident left him partially paralyzed at the age of 18.
“When my accident happened, I had spent my entire life building my athletic ability, building my mental ability, making sure I could pass any tests I was ever given,” Cawthorn told the Washington Examiner. The homeschooling graduate had earned a full-ride ROTC scholarship from the U.S. Marine Corps. “I was the No. 1 pick in the whole nation. I had it all.”
“Everything was going great for me,” he continued. “I had a great family. I was extraordinarily healthy. Life couldn’t get much better for me.” The otherwise cheerful Cawthorn looked down sadly as he described the night when he was riding back with his friend from a spring break trip to Florida. “I’m asleep taking a nap, and I run into a wall at 70 miles per hour. My entire life was taken away from me.”
His friend had fallen asleep at the wheel of their SUV and plowed into a concrete road barrier. After his friend pulled him from the fiery wreck with the help of two bystanders, Cawthorn was flown to a trauma center in Daytona Beach. Remembering when he regained consciousness, he said, “I wake up and I can’t move my legs. All I see is my family around me, looking at me with nothing but pity.” That’s when he realized, “Wow, I’m really messed up, whatever’s going on.”