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‘Surreal moments’: Chuck Edwards reflects on victory over Madison Cawthorn in North Carolina congressional race

FLAT ROCK, N.C. — Chuck Edwards was on his way to his election night watch party about 2 1/2 hours after polls closed when he received the call from Rep. Madison Cawthorn, who had already returned home from his own party and was ready to concede the race.

Cawthorn had spoken to supporters at his campaign headquarters in Hendersonville about a half-hour earlier, telling them that he believed the Republican primary race was “very close” and that he was confident that a small chunk of remaining ballots that hadn’t yet been reported by the state elections board would break for him by enough of a margin for him to catch up and take the lead.

But that never happened. The last couple of precincts reported their results soon after The Associated Press called the race for Edwards at 11:09 p.m. Eastern time. With all of the precincts in, the elections board’s unofficial results showed that the state senator had defeated Cawthorn by a little more than 1,300 votes, denying the embattled 26-year-old first-term congressman reelection.

Speaking to reporters on Tuesday night, Edwards said: “I’m so happy for the folks here in North Carolina’s 11th district. The energy that they showed, the enthusiasm to have a greater voice in their government — we’ve all got a lot to be proud of tonight.”

At his campaign office in downtown Hendersonville on Wednesday morning, Edwards said he felt “energized” after the late-night victory, and was looking forward to campaigning across the Western North Carolina district ahead of the November general election.

“Honestly, I’ve had a couple of surreal moments after 5 1/2 months of campaigning,” Edwards told The News & Observer in an interview. “It finally occurs to me that, ‘Hey, we’re here, we’re in this next leg of the race.’”

The race between Edwards and Cawthorn, the two candidates leading the eight-person field, was bitterly fought. For Cawthorn, what may have months earlier been considered a relatively easy reelection campaign was complicated and intensified by a series of unflattering headlines and powerful opposition within his own party.

When he called to concede, however, Cawthorn was “extremely professional, very gracious, very congenial,” Edwards said. Cawthorn also expressed a desire to look forward to the general election and help Edwards keep the district in GOP control “in absolutely any way we see fit.”

Edwards also said he doesn’t believe there are any divisions or tensions between his supporters and Cawthorn’s supporters.

“Our common purpose at this point, we recognize, is to bring the Republican Party together and focus on issues that are important to the people of these mountains right now.”

Edwards, whose business career has included owning McDonald’s restaurant franchises, is serving his third full term in the North Carolina Senate. He was appointed in August 2016 after the resignation of former state Sen. Tom Apodaca and won reelection in 2016, 2018 and 2020.

In the state Senate, Edwards serves as chairman of the committees on agriculture, energy and environment; appropriations on agriculture, natural and economic resources; and commerce and insurance.

Edwards will now face Democratic nominee Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, a county commissioner in liberal-leaning Buncombe County, in the general election in November.

Political observers consider the 11th Congressional District, which includes Buncombe and the city of Asheville but also other, more conservative counties in the westernmost part of the state, to be solidly Republican. That means that Edwards will likely face an easy contest against Beach-Ferrara in the fall.

Edwards told reporters Tuesday that his “first focus” is to run against and defeat Beach-Ferrara.

After that, he said, his priorities would be “removing the gavel out of Nancy Pelosi’s hand, and then taking the teleprompter from Joe Biden and restoring the policies that we enjoyed under the Trump administration, to help get this country back on track.”

Republicans in Washington have been bullish about their chances of taking control of either the U.S. House or Senate, or both, in November.

If he is elected to Congress in the fall, Edwards told the News & Observer one of his top priorities would be addressing the burden on families of rising prices for everyday goods.

“The pain that Americans (are) experiencing right now is inflation,” Edwards said. “You can’t talk to an American right now that is not feeling the pain at the pump, the pain at the grocery store — the supply chain issues. I mean it’s a travesty that we live in a country now that has bare shelves and you can’t find baby formula. This reminds me a lot of the '70s that we saw in the Soviet Union.”

Edwards also praised former President Donald Trump’s economic policies, which he said had led to gas prices at $1.80 a gallon, “abundant jobs,” and supply chain issues that “did not exist.”

Trump himself has repeatedly claimed that gas prices were at around $1.86 a gallon when he left office, a claim that PolitiFact rated false since the national average in January 2021 was around $2.38 a gallon. (The only time the national average fell to $1.86 a gallon was in March 2020, PolitiFact noted, at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, “when demand cratered due to lockdowns and business closures.”)

Reflecting on the campaign and what factors may have motivated voters to choose him over Cawthorn, Edwards pointed out that when he initially announced his congressional run last November, he and Cawthorn were planning to run in different districts. Cawthorn had decided at the time to leave the district where he won his first term in 2020 for another district closer to Charlotte.

Later, when a court-ordered redrawing of congressional districts went into effect and candidate filing resumed, Cawthorn moved his reelection bid back to the 11th District, where he suddenly faced seven challengers.

“Let’s keep in mind, I filed to run for an open seat. When our congressman moved to an adjacent district, there was an open congressional seat here in the mountains, and a void needed to be filled,” Edwards said. “I felt that someone needed to step up that had a real sense of what it took to be successful, to represent the people here in the mountains, someone with a proven track record.”

At first, prominent Republicans in the state legislature and Congress refrained from making endorsements in the race as Cawthorn navigated a series of scandals, some of them self-inflicted and others the results of leaks to the media.

A turning point came in late March, when Cawthorn suggested in a podcast interview that he had been invited by fellow members of Congress to partake in orgies and do “key bumps” of cocaine.

The comments drew the ire of top GOP leaders like House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who summoned Cawthorn into his office and told the freshman congressman he had lost McCarthy’s trust and would need to earn it back. Cawthorn also admitted to exaggerating at least some of the salacious claims, McCarthy claimed.

That week, U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis announced that he was endorsing Edwards in the 11th District GOP primary. In his endorsement, Tillis implicitly criticized Cawthorn for embarrassing Western North Carolinians “with a consistent pattern of juvenile behavior, outlandish statements and untruthfulness.” A political action committee aligned with Tillis would eventually spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on the race, largely for anti-Cawthorn ads, the News & Observer reported.

High-profile endorsements for Edwards continued to roll in, with Senate leader Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore, the top two Republicans in the GOP-controlled state legislature, holding a fundraiser for Cawthorn’s opponent.

Edwards said he wasn’t surprised by Tillis’ decision to back his campaign, particularly because of their relationship that began during Tillis’ tenure as House speaker in the North Carolina General Assembly, prior to his first run for U.S. Senate in 2014. Edwards wasn’t serving in the legislature at that point, but frequently traveled to Raleigh as a businessman, and met with Tillis on multiple occasions.

Once Edwards began serving in the state Senate, Tillis told him he was watching his work there with “great interest.”

Edwards said he believed the support of Tillis, Berger and Moore in the run-up to Tuesday’s primary “was more of a motivating factor for me” that “enthused” him, but probably didn’t have “a lot of effect” on average voters in the 11th District.

“The people here in the mountains want to make up their own mind,” he said. “They don’t want to be told who to vote for.”

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(Visual journalist Ethan Hyman contributed to this report.)