Getting rid of Madison Cawthorn is a rare win for the GOP establishment.
Chuck Edwards didn’t want to talk about one of the biggest political surprises so far in this year’s Republican primary season at his campaign office the morning after he won the election.
Representative Madison Cawthorn had a rough time running for re-election in North Carolina, but Mr. Edwards, 61, a three-term state senator and business owner, beat him in Tuesday’s primary. This was a rare defeat of a Trump-backed Republican incumbent.
Mr. Edwards said on Wednesday, while sitting at a sleek mahogany conference table in his campaign office in downtown Hendersonville, “I’m excited about the chance to bring the Republican Party together, put the primary behind us, and turn our attention to the real issues.”
What wasn’t said was that many voters saw him as the candidate of the establishment. He got support from old-school Republicans both at home and in Washington. Mr. Cawthorn, who is 26 years old, had angered two powerful Republicans with a long list of political and personal mistakes and scandals: Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, who is the House minority leader, and Senator Thom Tillis of North Carolina.
A political group that backs Mr. Tillis, who backed Mr. Edwards, spent a lot of money on ads that said Mr. Cawthorn lied to get attention. Other top Republicans in North Carolina, like the state’s House speaker and the leaders of the State Senate, also came to Mr. Edwards’ side.
In most Republican primaries across the country, old-fashioned establishment candidates like Romney and Bush have been on the run because of fights within the party and challenges from a far-right wing fueled by former President Donald J. Trump. But Mr. Edwards’ low-key behavior after the election showed that the state’s establishment didn’t want to claim victory at a time when the word “establishment” has become a slur in Republican politics.
When asked about those who thought of him as the “establishment” candidate, Mr. Edwards said that people had different ideas of what that meant.
“It’s true that I’ve built a reputation for being conservative and getting things done,” he said. “I’ve found out that I can lower taxes. I’ve shown that I know how to balance budgets. I’ve shown that I can pass laws that make it illegal for cities to act as safe havens.”
Mr. Cawthorn did not lose because of the establishment alone, of course. He seemed to have trouble with unaffiliated voters, who make up more than 40% of his district, and voters in Henderson County, where his hometown of Hendersonville is located and who helped him win the last Republican primary.
People turned against Mr. Cawthorn because he got a lot of bad press and made both personal and political mistakes. In interviews, many people said that they still supported Mr. Trump but didn’t like Mr. Cawthorn because they thought he was irresponsible, immature, and not fit for public office. Mr. McCarthy, for his part, told reporters in March that he had talked to Mr. Cawthorn after the new congressman said that members of his own party had invited him to orgies and to use cocaine with them.
Mr. Cawthorn was accused of insider trading, pulled over for speeding, charged with driving with a suspended license, and stopped for the second time trying to bring a gun through airport security. People saw photos and videos of him partying and acting out sexual antics. Most hurtful were reports that he missed a lot of votes and had left his district office.
After Mr. Cawthorn said last year that he would run in a new district near Charlotte, Mr. Edwards decided to join the race. After the new district was redrawn and became more Democratic, Mr. Cawthorn changed his mind and went back to his old district.
Mr. Edwards, who owns several McDonald’s franchises and has been in the state legislature since 2016, has built a strong conservative brand to the right of what used to be called the traditional establishment Republican. He has pushed for changes to tax laws, a change to the Constitution to require voter ID, and for county sheriffs to work with agencies that enforce immigration laws.
A few days after a racist mass shooting at a supermarket in Buffalo, Mr. Edwards said in his campaign office on Wednesday that he didn’t think law-abiding people shouldn’t be able to own guns. And he didn’t say anything bad about the racist conspiracy theory that police say drove the Buffalo shooter and that members of his own party have also said. This false theory says that immigration and falling birth rates are being used by elites to replace white people and destroy white culture.
Mr. Edwards said, “I don’t pay attention to words; I pay attention to results.” “I hate that we don’t enforce immigration laws at the border and that we’re losing the purity of our country.”
On Tuesday night, people had a good time at Mr. Cawthorn’s election party, which was held in a closed mechanics shop in Hendersonville that had been turned into an event space. People talked and played cornhole while eating snow cones. Small candy bowls and flower vases were set up in the middle of fold-out tables. There were cupcakes, star-shaped sunglasses, and red, white, and blue beaded necklaces for the guests to take home as gifts. A person who painted faces waited for kids to come to her stand.
But as night came, the crowd got bigger and more restless. Tiredly, people talked around the fold-out tables and looked at their phones to compare the results.
Mr. Cawthorn suddenly gave the race to Mr. Edwards. This was right after he thanked Mr. Trump for his support and said he was sure the final results would go his way, which made his supporters cheer. Mr. Edwards said that when he and Mr. Cawthorn talked that night, Mr. Cawthorn said he would back the plan 100%.
Mr. Cawthorn told Mr. Edwards on Twitter late Tuesday night that he was happy for him that he had won the Republican nomination. He wrote that it was time for Republicans in the district to “get behind the Republican ticket to beat the Democrat’s nominee this November.”
Wednesday, Mr. Cawthorn’s spokesman said that the congressman’s only statement right now was the tweet.
People walking down a street with shops outside Mr. Edwards’ campaign office were not surprised by his win. Milton Ready, a historian from North Carolina who said he is an unaffiliated voter who leans Democratic, said he voted for Mr. Edwards because he seemed like a Republican from the establishment who wasn’t crazy about getting attention.
“And,” Mr. Ready said, “I don’t think anyone in the world cares about his sexual life or how fast he drives.”