Madison Cawthorn is a hardcore Republican. The 24-year-old opposes so-called sanctuary cities, universal healthcare, and abortion — and is a climate change skeptic. He’s a committed Christian who wants to cut government spending. He counts Charlie Kirk and Ben Shapiro as his conservative role models.
He is also very likely to be the first Gen Z member of Congress.
“I want to be a different kind of candidate. We want to set ourselves apart. We’ve been sending the exact same thing to Washington so many times,” Cawthorn told BuzzFeed News. “Congress is designed to be a cross-section of the American people and it’s definitely not.”
On Tuesday night, Cawthorn won the Republican primary in North Carolina’s 11th Congressional District, besting his 62-year-old opponent, Lynda Bennett, by winning two-thirds of the vote. She had been endorsed by President Donald Trump and Mark Meadows, the former representative of the district who is now serving as the White House chief of staff.
Given the traditionally conservative politics of the seat, which takes up most of Western North Carolina, Cawthorn is now the odds-on favorite to win in November, when he will face Democrat Moe Davis, a retired Air Force colonel and prosecutor at Guantánamo Bay.
If he is elected, Cawthorn will become the youngest member of Congress, taking office at just 25 — the minimum age set forth in the Constitution.
But just as polls show there are some generational divides among young and older conservatives, some of Cawthorn’s views splinter from the most vocal senior members of his party.
Unlike Trump, for example, he believes statues of Confederate generals should be taken down — albeit by government process, not by those protesting against racism, and not necessarily because they are memorials glorifying racism. “These people seceded from our country. They declared war on the United States. I don’t necessarily want to have hero worship for them,” he said. “I do believe statues romanticize history.”
Although Cawthorn is from North Carolina, a one-time member of the Confederacy, many of his ancestors actually fought for the Union, he claimed. Cawthorn said Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee — an enslaver who waged a war to keep Black people in chains — was “an incredible man” but not one who should be honored through statues. “He could have fought for either side and he chose the wrong side,” said Cawthorn. “He’s on the wrong side of history.”
Cawthorn said he supports those peacefully protesting against racial injustice and the “horrendous killing” of George Floyd, but he previously told local ABC affiliate WLOS that he did not believe there was systemic racism in the US.
Asked if he supported the Black Lives Matter movement specifically, he told BuzzFeed News, “I believe Black lives matter,” but then hedged that answer with a variation of a common conservative refrain: “I think all life is precious, I really do.”
Being in a primary against a candidate backed by deep-pocketed donors and super PACs has also left Cawthorn taking a different position from others in his party on campaign finance reform. He said he supports a constitutional amendment overturning the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v. FEC, which allowed corporations and labor unions to spend money outside of campaigns during elections. “I think it gives people undue influence in our democratic process,” said Cawthorn.
And when he says he wants to use his time in Congress to push back against older generations in power, he doesn’t just mean saying “OK boomer.” Like many other Gen Z’ers, he’s also pushing back against millennials, whom he views as being dominated by liberal voices.
“I see a significantly higher amount of conservatives in my generation, Gen Z, than I do in the millennial generation,” he told BuzzFeed News in an interview Friday. “So I view myself as a retort to this far-left narrative, whether it’s been pushed by people like Rep. Ilhan Omar or Rep. Ocasio-Cortez.”
Despite Cawthorn’s belief that his generation’s politics are swinging right, a 2019 Pew Research Center report actually found Gen Z to be even further to the left of millennials. That’s in line with most polls that show young Americans lean left. Just this week, the New York Times and the Siena College Research Institute found 60% of 18- to 29-year-olds planned to vote for Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential election. Only a quarter of them had, like Cawthorn, a favorable opinion of the president.
But Gen Z, Cawthorn believes, also values diversity — and he thinks his perspective is a diverse one because of his physical disability.
During spring break 2014, he was asleep in the passenger seat of a car when his friend fell asleep and crashed, crushing Cawthorn’s spine. The accident transformed him, he said, from a privileged, independent man to someone with a drastically different outlook on life. “I know what it’s like to be looked over in a crowd,” he said. “I know what it’s like for someone to not view things from your perspective. I know what it’s like to be disenfranchised, and I really want to be a representative for people who feel like the system has left them behind.”
On most issues, though, Cawthorn is a staunch Republican. Like others in his party, he is skeptical of the 97% of scientists who believe humans are causing climate change. Cawthorn said he wasn’t convinced — despite overwhelming scientific evidence — that enough carbon had been emitted since the Industrial Revolution to alter the trajectory of the planet’s climate. “I believe that humans are contributing to a change in the Earth, but where we differ with liberals is on how much,” he said, adding, falsely: “I would argue it’s pretty minimal.”
And while he said he has gay friends and supports marriage for same-sex couples, he admitted he doesn’t know any transgender people and hadn’t read much about last week’s Supreme Court decision on LGBTQ employment protections — saying he was busy campaigning.
Still, before Cawthorn even gets to Congress, he has to win in November. Davis, his Democratic challenger, has plans to make sure that doesn’t happen.
Davis told BuzzFeed News that more than 20,000 more Democrats than Republicans voted in the March 30 primaries (Cawthorn and Bennett emerged from a pack of five candidates into Tuesday’s GOP runoff), which Davis sees as a sign of enthusiasm on the left. He also believes political analysts clamoring to crown Cawthorn are not factoring in the recent redistricting in North Carolina. “They’re using the wrong yardstick to measure this district by,” he said.
Davis, 61, now finds himself in the unusual position of arguing he would make a better representative for Gen Z voters in his district than his 24-year-old opponent, pointing to his support of abortion rights, healthcare access, and the LGBTQ community. He, too, wants Confederate statues taken down.
“You have to look at what the person believes and not their age,” he said. “I think my beliefs are more in line with younger voters.”
Because of their ages, Cawthorn has been compared to 30-year-old AOC in a lot of news stories about his victory. Both clinched surprising primary victories against establishment-backed candidates, both are telegenic, and both have compelling personal stories that they’ve used as part of their political narratives — she as a bartending daughter of a Puerto Rican family living in the Bronx, he as a proud hunter from a rural area whose ambitions to join the US Naval Academy were cut short by a car accident that put him in a wheelchair.
Representatives for AOC didn’t respond to a request for comment for this story, but Cawthorn sees the pair as having one other obvious thing in common.
“Although I assume we disagree on basically every policy decision — our ideologies couldn’t be more different — but we do both agree that it’s important to be able to convince other people to come to our side,” he said. “She’s a great orator, and I feel like I’m a great orator, so we’ll be competing for the hearts and minds of the new generation.”