What does Madison Cawthorn do now?

Madison Cawthorn left his Capitol Hill office on a recent afternoon like a man with a purpose, though what that purpose is, exactly, has been something of an unknown since he lost his congressional primary five months ago.

“I have to get to a floor speech real quick,” the North Carolina Republican said. Cawthorn, 27, who was partially paralyzed in a car accident in 2014, pivoted in his wheelchair and rolled out to the sidewalk, crossing Independence Avenue and heading toward the Capitol.

Inside a nearly empty House chamber, Cawthorn read a one-minute speech in which he declared that “America cannot be saved through legislation.”

“Christ, not Congress, will be what saves this country,” he said in an emphatic baritone.

Cawthorn left the Capitol building, stopping at the corner of Independence and New Jersey avenues, a tin of Grizzly chewing tobacco on his lap. “I gotta grab my food real quick,” he told The Washington Post before heading to another nearby corner to await a delivery driver.

As he lingered, a solitary figure in a stream of lunchtime passersby, the congressman spat tobacco juice on the sidewalk.

What does Madison Cawthorn do, now that his days in Washington are numbered?

At the Capitol, it seems, he has not made much of a mark. His standing among key Republicans, including Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, tanked after a series of missteps, perhaps the most consequential of which was his assertion in March that an unnamed colleague had invited him to an orgy and that he had seen another partake in a “key bump of cocaine.” Republicans who wanted to attack Democrats by talking about soaring gas prices and “Bidenflation” suddenly found themselves answering questions about whether the Capitol had turned into a swinger’s club.

Since his defeat in May, Cawthorn, who through a spokesman declined to be interviewed, has voted by proxy 86 times in the House, according to congressional records, assigning his votes to fellow Trumpist firebrands such as Lauren Boebert (Colo.), Matt Gaetz (Fla.), Louie Gohmert (Tex.) and Marjorie Taylor Greene (Ga.). He has introduced 11 bills since his primary loss, only one of which — the repeal of the National Firearms Act — has attracted a co-sponsor (Boebert).

Cawthorn’s congressional website is a virtual time capsule, still describing him as residing with his wife in North Carolina 10 months after he announced their decision to divorce. Though he has remained active on social media, he has not posted a press release since May 12, just before the primary, when he introduced a bill requiring the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to include abortions when calculating death rates.

It is difficult to discern what Cawthorn has been doing for his constituents back in North Carolina’s 11th district, which cuts across the state’s mountainous western region. A caller to two of his four district offices hears a recording that the offices are “no longer regularly staffed” and that voice mail is not “regularly” monitored. “Due to our office beginning to close for the term, we are no longer accepting new case work,” says a recording at the two other Cawthorn offices in the district. Cawthorn was the only member of the state’s congressional delegation who did not sign a Sept. 30 letter asking President Biden to declare an emergency in North Carolina in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian. Nor was the congressman among the speakers late last month when former president Donald Trump held a rally there.

“He’s not anywhere to be found,” said Michele Woodhouse, the 11th District’s former Republican chair, who ran against Cawthorn. “I don’t hear from anyone that there’s any great interest in what Madison Cawthorn is doing.”

“I have not had contact with him since the primary,” said Sharon Brooks, chair of the Republican Party in Henderson County, N.C., where Cawthorn owns a home. “We have moved on.”

Cawthorn’s rapid rise and fall is a case study in what counts as a mortal sin, professionally speaking, in today’s Republican Party — what conservative leaders and voters are willing to tolerate from a MAGA firebrand not named Trump. The congressman’s narrow primary defeat offered an answer, but only in part. The rest of the answer may lie in whatever happens to Madison Cawthorn next.

“He needs to get his act together. He needs to grow up,” said John Fredericks, a syndicated pro-Trump radio host who backed Cawthorn in 2020 and now describes his tenure in Congress as a “clown show.”

“After all the shenanigans, he deserved to get beat,” Fredericks said. “In two years, he demonstrated an incredible lack of maturity.”

Others, though, see the potential for a second Cawthorn act.

“If he chooses it, he has a very bright political future,” said Charlie Kirk, the conservative radio host who has promoted Cawthorn to his 1.7 million Twitter followers and through his pro-Trump youth organization, Turning Point USA. “Everyone loves a good comeback story. That’s an American story. Obviously, there have been hiccups along the way, but he has talent.”

In addition to his comments about an alleged orgy invitation and cocaine use involving Washington’s powerful, those “hiccups” include speeding tickets, driving with a revoked license (twice) and attempting to carry loaded guns through airport security checkpoints (twice). Cawthorn’s fall calendar includes several court hearings in North Carolina related to these violations.

There were also those two videos showing Cawthorn engaged in sexually suggestive behavior with another man, released during the campaign this year by a political action committee seeking to defeat him. (“Many of my colleagues would be nowhere near politics if they had grown up with a cellphone in their hands,” tweeted Cawthorn after the first video; of the second: “I was being crass with a friend, trying to be funny. We were acting foolish, and joking. That’s it.”) And also that photograph of Cawthorn dressed in lingerie (“goofy vacation photos during a game on a cruise [taken waaay before I ran for Congress],” according to Cawthorn) that showed up in Politico in April.

The congressman’s handling of money — both his personal finances, as well as his campaign’s — has also faced scrutiny. The House Ethics Committee in May opened a probe into whether Cawthorn engaged in insider trading of “Let’s Go Brandon” cryptocurrency he promoted, an allegation he has denied. His campaign spending — more than $4.4 million — also has drawn notice. The campaign’s receipts, according to campaign finance reports, included $2,478 for five visits to a North Carolina cigar bar for “food and beverage” and “office supplies”; $2,857 to a gun range for “fundraising events”; $1,700 to a taxidermist for “gifts”; $3,182 at Ruth’s Chris Steak House for a fundraising event, and thousands more at luxury hotels, including the Waldorf-Astoria, Ritz Carlton and Fontainebleau.

“All he has done is fly around the country and live high on the hog,” said George Erwin, a retired Henderson County sheriff and a key early Cawthorn supporter who ditched him days after the congressman took office.

Cawthorn’s office did not respond to questions about his spending.

“Madison Cawthorn did this to himself,” Erwin said. “He could have gone up there and been something, but he blew it. Nobody talks about him anymore. As time goes on, he will fade away.”

The story of Cawthorn’s rise and fall is not just about what cost him the support he needed to thrive in Washington; it’s also about what didn’t appear to cost him at all.

During his first congressional race in 2020, a letter signed by Cawthorn’s former classmates at Patrick Henry College, alleging sexual misconduct and other behavior, did not derail his campaign. “I have never done anything sexually inappropriate in my life,” he said at a debate that September, according to the Citizen Times of Asheville. He beat his Democratic two months later by a comfortable margin. (News articles published after he took office included more details about the allegations, which Cawthorn denied.)

As a congressman, Cawthorn embraced Trump’s false claims about election fraud, saying last year that “if our election systems continue to be rigged and continue to be stolen, then it’s going to lead to one place — and it’s bloodshed.” He spoke at the Jan. 6, 2021, rally on the Ellipse that preceded the siege of the Capitol and voted against certifying Biden’s victory. Yet his willingness to echo Trump’s attempts to undermine the election system do not appear to have hurt Cawthorn among Republicans, a significant majority of whom still wrongly believe Trump lost the presidency because of fraud (most GOP candidates on the ballot this November have denied or questioned the legitimacy of Biden’s victory, per a Post analysis).

Other Republican House members, such as Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) and Rep. Peter Meijer (R-Mich.), were rejected by primary voters after committing the cardinal sin of questioning, criticizing or otherwise defying Trump. Cawthorn has called Trump a genius and a father figure, and the former president, for his part, continued backing him. (“Let’s give Madison a second chance!” he wrote on Truth Social before the North Carolina primary.) Instead, Cawthorn got himself kicked out of the club the old-fashioned way: by accumulating a mound of scandalous baggage and angering party leaders.

“He has lost my trust,” Republican Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said in March — a signal to GOP donors that they could support the congressman’s opponent. (The Post has reported that McCarthy allies quietly worked to defeat Cawthorn as part of a broader push to eliminate certain disruptive Republican candidates. A spokesman for McCarthy did not respond to a request for comment for this story.)

Even then, he lost his primary by a mere 1,300 votes.

Michael Caputo, a longtime Trump confidant, described Cawthorn’s transgressions as “petty,” noting that “It’s not like he stole public money or misappropriated funds.”

“There are so many scandals in Washington,” Caputo said. “In comparison, Madison Cawthorn is going to be remembered as kind of boring.”

As he headed back to the Capitol for votes a couple of hours after his floor speech, Cawthorn wheeled past Rick Hohensee, a bearded man who’s a fixture outside the House advocating for himself to be declared president by constitutional amendment. Hohensee was at the entrance to the House driveway, a harmonica pressed to his lips as he serenaded arriving members with a rendition of “Send in the Clowns.” When he saw Cawthorn, Hohensee paused and said, “He’s the only person around here who speaks the truth.”

Cawthorn smiled as he rolled by.

“Hang in there, brother,” a Capitol police officer told Cawthorn as he wheeled up a ramp into the House.

Between his legs, Cawthorn stowed a plastic water bottle, which he used as a spittoon as he traveled the House floor. Some colleagues patted Cawthorn’s back and shook his hand before quickly stepping past him in that distinctly Washington version of the air kiss.

At one point, the congressman ran into McCarthy, and the two of them shook hands and shared a laugh as if they were old pals. Cawthorn chatted up Boebert, who tilted her head back and cackled. (Asked later about Cawthorn, Boebert said, “How about you ask me about me? I’m not talking about other people,” and then walked away.)

Washington tends to be kind to former lawmakers who want to reinvent themselves as lobbyists and pundits. Yet, after two years at the Capitol, Cawthorn has not exactly established himself as a political or legislative sage.

“Outside of the Trump ecosphere, it’s hard to see where he goes from here,” said Doug Heye, a former Republican National Committee communications director. “Traditional exit routes are not open to him.”

Cawthorn’s main problem is the perception that he lacks “attention to personal discipline and conduct,” said Paul Shumaker, a North Carolina-based political consultant who advised Chuck Edwards, the Republican who defeated Cawthorn in the primary.

“I’m talking about the speeding tickets, taking the gun back into the airport,” Shumaker said. “It gives the impression of being above the law. To rebuild his career, he’s going to have to address and prove stability and credibility. Those are two litmus tests, and that’s a function of time.”

“Voters are willing to forgive,” Shumaker said. “But to seek forgiveness, you have to admit when you make a mistake.”

Cawthorn has acknowledged his proverbial hiccups here and there — “Obviously when it comes to driving, I’ve got some work to do,” he said during the campaign this year. Mainly, though, he and his allies have portrayed him as a victim.

Caputo, the Trump associate, said Cawthorn’s best path to redemption is to “pick an issue that matters to you most, where your passion will be perceived as authentic.”

“Madison has a platform, and people who listen to him,” Caputo said. “Is it a podcast? Is it for a think tank or an activist group? I don’t know. There’s a path there. Washington is filled with pirates and backstabbers and grifters. It’s very difficult to find friends, but Madison has friends, and that’s a start.”

“I think the world of him,” said Kirk, the Turning Point founder, in a telephone interview. Kirk said he has exchanged texts with Cawthorn in recent months and that “he has told me he wants to focus on building a family and absorb some of the lessons of the past couple of years.”

Luke Ball, who quit as Cawthorn’s communications director in June, says he would work for him again.

“The bottom line is, we haven’t heard the last of Madison Cawthorn,” Ball said. “The public has a short memory about a lot of things, and I’m not sure how much more they have to throw at him.”

“We joked in the primary,” he said. “If they keep this up, they won’t have anything left when he runs for governor.”

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