This 24-year-old pro-Trump Republican could become Gen Z's first member of Congress
Madison Cawthorn spent the hours after polls closed in North Carolina last week "in disbelief."
The 24-year-old real estate investor, a political newcomer, was trouncing his Republican primary opponent in the runoff race for the U.S. House seat vacated by Mark Meadows, who stepped down to become President Donald Trump's chief of staff.
Trump had backed Cawthorn's 62-year-old opponent, Lynda Bennett, and recorded a robocall for her. But soon, Cawthorn was declared the winner, according to The Associated Press. And it wasn't close.
"I kept the Spartan reserve because I just didn't believe [I had won] until the AP called it," he told NBC News in an interview. "I didn't believe it."
Ever since, Cawthorn said, it has felt "like I'm drinking from a fire hose," participating in more than 60 interviews following the surprise victory. He is eager to improve the Republican messaging he feels is out of touch with his generation and, as a late-wave millennial, to be a voice for Generation Z, or "zoomers," in Congress.
He is fully aware that his staunchly conservative political views on health care, abortion rights and gun rights make him somewhat of an outlier among his peers, though he believes Gen Z may end up more conservative than millennials.
Pew Research Center polling has shown a similar share of millennials and "zoomers" agree on issues of race, gender and the environment, while those in Gen Z who identify as Republicans or Republican-leaning believe the government should have a more active role than older Republican-identifying Americans.
"I do believe that I'm the response to the millennial generation, the first wave of it, because, overwhelmingly [that] generation is exceedingly liberal," he said, adding, "I look forward to being able to lead a new generation of patriots coming up."
In November, he'll face Morris Davis, a Democratic candidate and an Air Force veteran who was the top prosecutor at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. North Carolina's 11th Congressional District is considered to be under safe GOP control, meaning the results put him on a fast track to becoming the youngest member of Congress since the earliest years of the Republic. He is set to turn the required minimum age of 25 in August.
Cawthorn's personal story played into his campaign's message, and influences his worldview, he said. In 2014, he was nearly killed in a car crash and was left partially paralyzed and in a wheelchair. He said the ordeal "really taught me empathy."
"Especially coming from my generation, we're so used to this intersectionality that happens" in society, he said, adding, "I'm more willing to take a second to consider someone else's upbringing or their perspective because I know that we're not all alike, and I know what it's like for someone to not consider my viewpoint from where I am in my background."
He said Republicans need to change their messaging on issues such as immigration and health care — not because the party is on the wrong side of those policy debates, but because the appeals don't "necessarily make people feel good about them or they don't explain to people why this does good."
On health care specifically, Cawthorn said Republicans for years spoke of repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act, "but I'm a pretty politically astute person, I have no idea what they wanted to replace Obamacare with. I have no idea."
Republicans need to use social media "to explain our message of conservatism in a better light," he said.
Cawthorn's surprise win also marked a rare defeat for a Trump-backed GOP primary candidate. But while he didn't have Trump's endorsement, Cawthorn ran on a pro-Trump platform while talking up his status as a Washington outsider.
"I'm really not looking to work with any caucus or anything," he said. "I don't want to be loyal to some caucus chair. I want to be loyal to the people of west North Carolina alone."
He's already made one important D.C. contact — the president whose candidate he beat. As Cawthorn was driving home with his fiancé, Cristina Bayardelle, from his campaign victory party, he got a call from an unknown number, he said. It was the Air Force One switchboard, and Cawthorn was being connected to the president, whose "signature voice" came booming through the car speakers.
"And he said [the victory] was tremendous, beautiful, using all the great adjectives he always uses, and it was a fun, fun phone call," Cawthorn said. "Him and I, I'll have his support in the fall and I explained to him that this was not a referendum on him at all, we just ran a better campaign but 99 percent of my voters will be voting for him."