Madison Cawthorn took time away from involuntary retirement in sunny south Florida earlier this month to make his political debut at an outdoor rally where he urged his new neighbors to “get down in the mud and fight … or we’re going to lose this country.”
The former congressman from Hendersonville, who recently relocated to the southwestern Florida city of Cape Coral following his reelection defeat, was among the featured speakers at a rally of conservative Republicans calling for the replacement of Ronna McDaniel, the national GOP chairwoman and a party moderate, with an “America First” leader.
The effort failed and McDaniel was easily reelected on Jan. 27. But Cawthorn left no doubt that he regarded McDaniel as too moderate for the times, a sentiment apparently shared by the small crowd.
“Does this sound like a woman who has sworn eternal hostility to tyranny?” Cawthorn asked the “Moms for America” gathering in Sarasota, eliciting a supportive chorus of nos. “If we’re going to vote for people who have pleated pants and tassel loafers, who want to try to get along to go along, who don’t want to rock the boat too much … my friends, the boat is sinking!”
His brief speech, delivered against the backdrop of a flat-bed truck festooned with American flags, was videotaped by Sarasota Herald-Tribune reporter Zachary Anderson, who provided a copy to Asheville Watchdog. Cawthorn, 27, made no mention of his previous position in Congress. But he concluded his speech with a self-introduction: “My friends, my name is Madison and I am so proud to be a new resident of Florida.”
Among the event’s sponsors was the local chapter of Moms for America, a fast-growing, arch-conservative group advocating such issues as total abortion bans, Christian nationalism, and publicly funded homeschooling — issues also espoused by Cawthorn and others in the “America First” wing of the Republican Party backed by ex-president Donald Trump.
Since leaving his former constituents last summer, several months before the end of his one-and-only term in the House of Representatives, Cawthorn hasn’t provided details of future plans beyond resettling in Florida. In August, he bought a $1.12 million waterfront home in Cape Coral, just south of Sarasota, and shortly thereafter shut down his offices on Capitol Hill and in Hendersonville.
The rapid departure before the end of his term left a sour taste with the man who defeated him, Republican Chuck Edwards, who publicly complained that Cawthorn had failed to pass along constituent-service case records and had ignored efforts to carry out a smooth transition.
Apparently living in Florida since last summer, Cawthorn was required to return to North Carolina earlier this month to deal with a year-old criminal charge of attempting to carry a loaded firearm on to a flight to Washington from Charlotte. That case was postponed until May 5 because the charging police officer was unable to attend the hearing. But Cawthorn spoke with reporters afterward and said he remains interested in a return to politics.
“But I’m not planning on doing it anytime soon,” he told Gaston Gazette reporter Kevin Ellis, adding that he wants to “enjoy my life for a little while.” Cawthorn made it clear that this would not be in North Carolina, but rather in Florida, where life includes “a lot of sunshine, a lot of cigars, good friends, good family.”
“When you’re on the water and on the Jet Ski, you’re not paralyzed and you have full control, so you can’t beat that,” Cawthorn said.
If this suggested a mellowing out after a fiery term in Congress where he earned a place among the Republican Party’s ultra-right wing, Cawthorn’s remarks at the Sarasota rally Jan. 20 showed the opposite.
“The futures of our children and grandchildren are at stake here,” he said, building on a theme of apocalyptic threat. “If we continue to elect people who are going to play politics as usual instead of being able to get down in the mud and fight these people as hard as they fight us, then we’re going to lose our country …”
“My friends, we have a weaponized, tyrannical government that is coming after each and every one of us,” Cawthorn continued. “If we don’t investigate what these people did to us, if we don’t expose them, they will continue to get away with it for all time.”
His brief call-to-action included the jailing of Anthony Fauci, architect of the nation’s response to the COVID-19 epidemic and a punching bag of the far right, and an end to sending American financial aid to other nations.
“We are America First Republicans,” Cawthorn told the group.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.