Expert: It’s not about masks or freedom, it’s about grandstanding and branding for Cawthorn

Professor Chris Cooper

Chris Cooper, a distinguished professor of political science at Western Carolina University, offers a must read assessment of Rep. Madison Cawthorn’s visit to the Johnston County School Board meeting this evening. Professor Cooper rightfully questions why the freshman congressman would travel 300 miles outside of his own district to weigh in on a local school board decision. The answer: political aspirations and cash.

As Cooper explains in today’s column cross-posted from Old North State Politics:

If 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.

Madison Cawthorn addressing Macon County supporters over the summer.

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.

So, 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?

Not 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 McHenry and Virginia Foxx. 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 rate.

It 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 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 that seat.

Cawthorn’s 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 legislation

In 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 political figure who is, in his own words, “probably the furthest, most conservative person in Congress.” And that, is precisely the point.

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

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