The once-rising star of the MAGA galaxy’s dim constellation of lawmakers has been hit with a dizzying number of incriminating leaks recently.
At this point, it’s hard not to think there really was something to North Carolina Republican Rep. Madison Cawthorn’s offhanded allegations of conservative group-sex soirees and coke-horking. Despite abashedly — if half-heartedly — walking back his assertion that he’d both been invited to orgies and seen hard drug use during his brief time in Congress so far, the timing of Cawthorn’s claims conspicuously lines up with an ongoing deluge of embarrassing and incriminating opposition research seemingly designed to poison his political future among Republican voters.
First came the pictures of Cawthorn dressed in what appeared to be lingerie, which the congressman later claimed were “goofy vacation photos during a game on a cruise” from before his congressional run. Next was footage of Cawthorn in a car with a man later identified as his congressional scheduler and aide, muttering about wanting “passion and desire and [...] to see a naked body beneath my hands” as the male passenger briefly gropes the congressman’s crotch. The video was published as part of an ethics complaint against the first-term representative by the Fire Madison Cawthorn/American Muckrakers PAC, a group responsible for a lawsuit attempting to disqualify Cawthorn from re-election for his participation in the Jan. 6 insurrection. And then this week came a new video of Cawthorn, seemingly naked, engaging in some ambiguous shenanigans with another man in what appears to be a hotel bed.
“Years ago, in this video, I was being crass with a friend, trying to be funny,” Cawthorn wrote on Twitter, confirming the low-resolution footage’s veracity shortly after it was released Wednesday evening. “We were acting foolish, and joking. That’s it.”
All this has the feel of an attack that’s as much viciously personal as it is professional, and all of it has come in just over a month since Cawthorn’s initial coke orgy comments went public. And, oh yeah, in that time a bevy of his fellow North Carolina Republicans have come stalking through the tall grass with their sights set on Cawthorn’s job, and his suspicious finances to boot.
So, what the hell is going on here? No one really knows. But if I had to guess, I’d say that what Cawthorn dubbed a “drip drip campaign” is coming — as has been suggested by the congressman and his allies — from within his own party (even if, as in the case of the Fire Madison Cawthorn ethics complaint, liberal groups are being tapped to actually launder the content). The undercurrent of homophobia in the three leaks seems to be particularly calibrated to speak to — and from — a conservative party rife with anti-gay sentiment. While Democrats have certainly engaged in instances of bigoted intra-party machinations themselves, the Cawthorn leaks feel so crass, so personal, and so conspicuously timed that it’s hard to imagine Democrats spending this sort of time and money against an opponent running in a deep-red area they have little chance of flipping.
Meanwhile, Cawthorn has consistently sparred with his fellow Republicans while offering the party little in return, in the way his fellow ultra-hard-right MAGA bomb throwers have. With his history of shady personal dealings, the longstanding allegations of sexual misconduct, repeated legal imbroglios, and general unlikeable-ness, it’s no surprise that party figures might see him as embodying all the risks of, say, a Marjorie Taylor Greene, with none of the rewards. If, as it sure seems, the conservative knives are sharpened and out for him to this degree, it’s less because of what he’s done — certainly other members of Congress have done worse things than what appear to be stupid frat bro antics like his — than it is his inability to justify his presence in Congress to begin with. And if there’s one thing Republicans can’t stand, it’s deadweight.
For now, it seems as if Cawthorn has no intention to go anywhere — and it’s entirely possible he will win re-election against a slate of conservative challengers (to say nothing of the Democrats come November). But if he does lose his spot in Congress, I suspect it’s his fellow Republicans who’ll be taking the biggest victory lap over his political grave.