Brittney Lofthouse said she tried to warn Chuck Edwards that hiring her could be a political problem for the newly elected Republican congressman.
She said she firmly believed that she possessed the skills Edwards needs to help him fulfill his top inaugural promise — that constituent service would be a hallmark of his term. Yet, she said, she felt it important to caution him: “I am not everyone’s cup of tea.”
Lofthouse, 35, is a mother of three whose husband is a lieutenant in the Macon County Sheriff’s office. Her oversized eyeglasses and bright smile disguise a fierce political independence and hair-trigger willingness to speak out.
In the online news site The Southern Scoop, Lofthouse has strongly supported LGBTQ rights and demanded respect for marginalized people. “I will always be obnoxiously loud about standing up for things — or people — who may not have the ability or the courage to speak up for themselves,” she wrote in a column last year after some Macon County residents expressed outrage at a Gay Pride Month display at the local library.
The library’s critics said acknowledging Gay Pride was akin to “grooming” children for gender change, and that the library staff was trying to “promote child sex in the name of diversity.”
Lofthouse — who described herself as a political conservative and social liberal, and who said she voted for Donald Trump in 2016 — backed Democrat Cheri Beasley in the 2022 US Senate race over right-wing Republican Ted Budd because, she said, she found him to be rude. And even while considering taking a job on Edwards’s staff, she rejected advice that she switch her voter registration from unaffiliated to Republican.
“That was a non-starter for me,” and she told Edwards so, she said in an interview with Asheville Watchdog.
In a recent column Lofthouse wrote that she adopts the words of the comedian Ron White as her own: “I may have the right to remain silent … I just never have the ability.”
“No party boundaries”
Edwards went ahead, eager to demonstrate his commitment to building a competent staff to help constituents navigate the federal government’s bureaucratic maze to get the services to which they are entitled. Helping these people without regard to their political views would be his top priority, he said, and he said he was confident Lofthouse could do that.
“Here in the mountains, issues affecting people’s lives see no party boundaries,” Edwards told Asheville Watchdog columnist John Boyle, repeating his campaign pledge to serve all constituents irrespective of political loyalties.
Lofthouse was a critic of Edwards’s GOP primary opponent, then-Rep. Madison Cawthorn, for what she said was Cawthorn’s failure to serve constituents in his home district — criticisms that Edwards echoed. She resigned from a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services contract job, doing public outreach for Medicare and Medicaid, to take the job on Edwards’s staff.
On Jan. 25, with Lofthouse at his side, Edwards told members of the Franklin Rotary Club that he had hired her to be the Western Regional Director overseeing constituent services in the 11th Congressional District’s westernmost counties, a region where Lofthouse was raised and lives.
That afternoon the congressman included her in a staff photo taken during a visit to Southwestern Community College. And he later singled her out for praise when speaking to a reporter.
“He did an interview with Blue Ridge Public Radio gushing about how thankful he was that I was willing to work for his office,” Lofthouse recalled. “He said how great it was for his office to have my passion.”
Just hours after word of Lofthouse’s hiring spread, vehement protests flooded Edwards’s office from local Republican leaders. One party leader gathered signatures for a petition to Edwards alleging that Lofthouse opposed former president Trump, supported “drag queens,” and, in general, wasn’t in line with the “conservative Christian values” of the mountain counties.
Two days later, The Daily Haymaker, a conservative, pro-Trump blog based in Moore County, far from the mountains of Edwards’s district, tossed gas on the fire.
“US Rep. Chuck Edwards hires Trump-hating, Beasley-endorsing, gay rights activist onto district staff,” the headline read. It ran beneath a photo lifted from Lofthouse’s Facebook page of her with her four-year-old nephew, who was wearing a T-shirt with the words, Toddlers Against Trump.
Comments published with the story ranged from nasty to vicious, most of them pseudonymous.
But the principal target of the anger wasn’t Lofthouse. It was Edwards, along with his political mentor, U.S. Senator Thom Tillis, the state’s senior elected Republican.
“Never trust a politician just because they have R next to their name,” wrote one commenter.
“In no world would a Democrat bring a Republican on to his staff,” wrote another. “But of course the party of SUCK will do just that as groomer Edwards just proved.”
Many of the commenters lamented the defeat of disgraced congressman Cawthorn, whom Edwards defeated by a slim margin in the 2022 GOP primary.
“So sad that Western NC traded Cawthorn for Edwards. I expect to see more treachery to come,” wrote a commenter calling himself Rutherford County Guy.
“Resign immediately, or be fired”
Barely 72 hours after she had been publicly lauded by Edwards, Lofthouse said, she was eating dinner with her family in a local restaurant when she received an urgent text to call Chris Burns, her new boss. When she did, she said, Burns answered the call with Bronwyn Lance, the chief of staff, beside him.
Lofthouse said the message from the pair was brief and direct: Resign immediately or be fired. There was no explanation and no appeal, Lofthouse said.
Edwards’s office tersely refused The Watchdog’s request for comment: “We don’t comment on internal personnel matters.”
But Lofthouse said she is certain of the reason: She was hot and Edwards couldn’t risk the heat.
“I was devastated and I was angry,” Lofthouse told The Watchdog. “Because we had talked about it and they assured me we could move forward for the betterment of the district … I had hoped that the congressman would have been able to say, ‘Look, I get [the complaints], but I’m not asking her to do policy for me; she’s not voting on anything.”
She added, however, that she knew in taking the job that Edwards had “a balancing act to do” because Edwards trailed Cawthorn in the GOP primary in the rural counties she would have served and — if the reaction to The Daily Haymaker article was an indication — many voters there weren’t ready to embrace Edwards.
Looming intra-party war
“You know, what every first-term member of Congress wants is a second term,” said Michael Bitzer, chairman of Catawba College’s Department of Political Science and History. “The most vulnerable time for a member will be when running for reelection to the second term.”
Even in a less polarized political climate, Bitzer said, every action that a freshman takes will face severe scrutiny. And in the current hyper-polarized environment, a matter as seemingly anodyne as a mid-level staff hire can be explosive.
“The parties believe in true party loyalty, particularly on the Republican side,” Bitzer said. “And if you don’t display that sense of tribalism and loyalty, watch out. I think for Edwards, appeasement of that faction was necessary so there isn’t a challenge to him from the further right.”
Others assert that the extreme reaction to Lofthouse’s hiring can be traced to a different reason: A looming intra-party war between the Republican Party’s two factions.
On one side is the surging far-right wing dominated by Trump’s MAGA followers. On the other is the traditionalist wing centered in Raleigh, nominally headed by Thom Tillis and including Edwards, a former state senator.
In an interview with The Watchdog, Brant Clifton, editor of The Daily Haymaker, called this “the latest skirmish” in a Republican Party civil war that has flared over decades. “But it’s the strongest I’ve seen since I’ve been here.” Clifton first got involved in North Carolina politics as a staffer for Jesse Helms, a Republican who served as U.S. Senator from 1973 to 2003.
Lofthouse, Clifton said, was merely collateral damage, not the primary target, and he conceded he used the controversy to further his own efforts to foster a “revolution” within the state Republican power structure.
She “was just an angle to bring something out that would make Chuck Edward and Thom Tillis uncomfortable,” Clifton said. He said he hadn’t known anything of Lofthouse until contacted by her critics, adding that even he was surprised at the “venom” directed at her in the response to his article. “People seem to hate her guts,” Clifton said.
Clifton said Edwards was responsible for whatever damage the attacks may have on Lofthouse, because Edwards “put her up on the ladder where she could get shot at” despite being aware of her public views.
“Why didn’t he anticipate the storm?” Clifton asked.
“Pursuit of Ideological Purity” within GOP
Western Carolina University political science Professor Chris Cooper said he agreed with this framing, which he described as the pursuit of ideological purity within the Republican Party. Edwards’s attempt to put aside ideology in hiring Lofthouse ran headfirst into that pursuit.
A result, Cooper said, is that Republican Party primaries in the 2024 election cycle will become “an ugly fight and a public fight,” diminishing the ability of the party’s factions to come together to face a united, or less fractured, Democratic candidate.
Whether Edwards will suffer lasting political damage from this is hard to gauge at this stage, Cooper said, calling it “inside baseball.” Edwards’s voting record is solidly on the Republican Party’s conservative side and that’s not likely to change, he continued.
The most revealing aspect of this incident, Cooper said, might be what it says about the composition of the 11th Congressional District’s Republican electorate. “The fact that the staff member was seen as being a little too friendly with the gay-rights community was enough to get her fired, that’s quite the statement.”
For her part, Lofthouse said she remains hopeful that Edwards’s promise to make constituent service his priority will prove real, although she said she is “devastated” and regrets missing the opportunity to be a part of it.
“I will just continue to volunteer my time and do what I can do to make the world a better place,” she said. “As corny as it sounds, I’m really hopeful that Congressman Edwards will be the congressman that we haven’t seen in a very long time.”
Asheville Watchdog is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and Buncombe County. Tom Fiedler is a Pulitzer Prize-winning political reporter and former executive editor of The Miami Herald. Email email@example.com.