ASHEVILLE, North Carolina — If Rep. Madison Cawthorn falls to Republican challenger Michele Woodhouse in Tuesday’s crucial 11th Congressional District primary, he’ll only have himself to blame. After all, Woodhouse is only running because Cawthorn recruited her into the race.
That was back when Cawthorn was planning to run for a second term in a new House district anchored in the Charlotte media market in preparation for a 2026 Senate bid. But after the North Carolina Supreme Court threw out the initial redistricting map approved by the Republican-controlled legislature, Cawthorn returned home to the 11th Congressional District. Except Woodhouse refused to step aside, and so his ally became his nemesis.
“Madison should resign — 100% Madison needs to resign,” Woodhouse said this week in an interview with the Washington Examiner. “His committee assignments should be stripped. He’s completely ineffective.”
Quite the comment from one of Cawthorn’s early supporters and someone who worked closely with him as the Republican chairman in western North Carolina’s 11th District. In the 2020 primary there, Woodhouse backed Cawthorn over the candidate endorsed by former President Donald Trump and actively supported his campaign.
Last year, Woodhouse became chairwoman of the 11th District GOP in part because she enjoyed his backing. She left the gig eight months later to run for Congress when Cawthorn made her his choice to succeed him as the representative for this sprawling, ruby-red seat that is dominated by bucolic, green mountains and dotted with small, historic communities.
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Woodhouse sat down with the Washington Examiner in the most prominent of the district’s communities, Asheville, a tourist destination in its own right, to discuss her campaign and argue her case against the incumbent, as well as fellow Republican primary challenger Chuck Edwards, a state senator who represents a portion of the 11th District in Raleigh, the state capital.
Edwards is backed by Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC), a prominent Cawthorn critic, and enjoys the support of an outside group, Results for NC, that is funding attack ads against the congressman. Despite agreeing with the substance of those attacks, Woodhouse raised Tillis’s endorsement of Edwards and the advertising from Results for NC to suggest that the state senator is an establishment lackey who would ignore grassroots concerns in Washington, D.C.
“The hit pieces that have followed, all the mailers and all of the negative ads and all of those things tell me how badly the swamp wants to take this seat,” Woodhouse said. “They’ve hitched their wagon to just, sleazy politics.”
Woodhouse is running as the effective, pro-Trump, “America first” candidate who can be counted on to stiff-arm the Republican establishment but not so much that she fails to get things done for a district that has significant shares of military veterans and seniors. For instance, Woodhouse said she will vote for House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) for speaker if Republicans win the majority in November (Cawthorn has made no such pledge.)
Woodhouse said she is asked about her support for McCarthy nearly everywhere she goes. “Everyone loves that question,” Woodhouse said. “Kevin McCarthy’s going to be the speaker of the House, 100%. He’ll have my vote, and he’ll be the speaker of the House because we’ll have two choices: [House Speaker] Nancy Pelosi [D-CA] or Kevin McCarthy, and our No. 1 goal is that it’s not Nancy Pelosi.”
At times, this pragmatic streak appears in tension with Woodhouse’s activist instincts. But it fits with her background.
Now in her early 50s, the Michigan native cut her teeth on grassroots politics in the Great Lake State while working her way up the ladder in corporate America as a medical sales executive. Woodhouse described herself as a “hardcore liberal” in college at Michigan State University in Lansing who later migrated toward the GOP and finally left the Democratic Party because of disgust with President Bill Clinton over his affair with Monica Lewinsky.
“He did a news conference, came out and said he did not have sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky,” Woodhouse, now a self-employed medical industry consultant, recalled. “I changed my registration the next day, and have never voted for a Democrat since.”
Four years ago, Woodhouse moved from Michigan to North Carolina and settled in Hendersonville, a vibrant community of 14,000 with a trendy main street situated 25 miles south of Asheville. Incidentally, Hendersonville is also the home base for Cawthorn and Edwards.
Meanwhile, just as she did in Michigan, Woodhouse dove into grassroots Republican politics in the 11th Congressional District. After winning the race for chairman of the district GOP just after the 2020 election, Woodhouse sought to professionalize its operations and provide more support for the 17 county parties under its umbrella. To raise money for the party, she tapped a diverse array of conservative headliners, including Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) and Republican uber-strategist Karl Rove.
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Then, one day, Cawthorn called with an assignment.
“When Madison left to run in Charlotte, he called me and was like, 'You need to run [for Congress], you’re the America First person — that needs to be you,'” Woodhouse said. When Cawthorn opted to stick with the 11th Congressional District, Woodhouse says he informed her by leaving a voicemail message.