Cawthorn, Davis stake out sharp divisions in first debate


Republican Madison Cawthorn and Democrat Morris “Moe” Davis exchanged fiery words Friday night as the two candidates for North Carolina’s 11th Congressional District squared off in the first of back-to-back nights of debates hosted by Blue Ridge Public Radio, Mountain Xpress and Smoky Mountain News.

The debate marks the first time that the two candidates have come together and faced off in person since winning their respective primaries in March. The event was held on the Biltmore Park campus of Western Carolina University with video live-streamed via Blue Ridge Public Radio’s page on Facebook. Saturday evening’s debate will be held at the university’s home campus in Cullowhee, with video similarly live-streamed. There was no live audience due to Covid-19 restrictions.

Here are seven highlights of the match-up:

Wisdom vs. youth

The most striking difference between the two candidates came down to experience. Sixty-two-year-old Davis, a retired Air Force colonel who touted decades of military and civil service experience, took shots at 25-year-old Cawthorn throughout the evening for his lack of education, employment and understanding of the political process. (Cawthorn would be the youngest member of Congress if he wins in November.)

But Cawthorn claimed that being a political newcomer had its advantages. Calling himself an outsider who “wants to come in to disrupt the system,” Cawthorn said that he decided after finishing his freshman year in college that he did not need a degree to accomplish his goals, and aligned himself with the majority of Americans who have not completed college-level education. 

“The people of Western North Carolina and nationally, over 60% of our population does not have a college degree and it’s even higher here in this district,” he said. “And so for my opponent to say that all these pipefitters, these painters, the people who actually build things in our country are not sophisticated enough to be able to shape public policy, I believe is a spit in the face to the majority of Americans.”

“If you need a pipefitter, or if you need someone to fix your car, you don’t go in and say, ‘Who has no education, training or experience to do the job?’” Davis fired back.

“I’m not poking at folks who didn’t graduate college. There are great jobs out there,” Davis continued. “But to say, ‘Who’s never done this before? Let’s send him in. He can figure out how to do it.’… We live in the real world and we’re in trouble right now and you need somebody that knows what they’re doing.” 

Confronting accusations

Cawthorn also spent the first part of the evening defending himself against claims that he sexually assaulted a 17-year-old girl at the age of 19, and that he has ties to white nationalism. 

“I won’t lie to you, in high school and after, I did try to kiss a girl. I’ve kissed many girls in high school and some of my attempts failed. But I believe there’s a large difference in a failed attempt versus sexual assault,” Cawthorn said. He went on to say that he is planning to marry and have children. He noted that if he had a daughter of his own, he would want her and any potential partners to ask for and give explicit consent.

“I think that would have made my high school experience much less awkward if I knew that was a question that could generally be asked,” he explained. “But also, if I have a son I want him to grow up in a world where he’s not accused of being a sexual predator just because he wants to kiss a girl.”

Cawthorn also rejected any claims that he had ties to white nationalism and said that his fiancé was bi-racial. “To accuse me of hating my fiancé and hating my future bi-racial children, I believe is an insult to most thinking people in Western North Carolina,” he said.

While Davis didn’t outright agree with the assessment that Cawthorn had white nationalist ties, he did tell voters to examine the totality of evidence and draw their own conclusions. “I’m proud to say I haven’t had to spend one minute explaining that I’m not a Nazi,” he added.

Ready to go green

The candidates did seem to find some common ground on the issue of the environment. Both agreed that human activity was contributing to climate change and increasing instances of damaging weather.

“This is actually an area where I disagree with the majority of conservatives and Republicans over the last few decades. I’m someone who genuinely believes that we need to conserve our earth,” said Cawthorn, who called himself a “green conservative.” 

He said that he supported an “all-of-the-above” approach when it comes to clean energy innovation, and promoted utilizing wind, solar and nuclear power in place of fossil fuels. He also called for reform of climate-related laws and regulations, including the 1970 National Environmental Policy Act, which he said delayed the deployment of new clean energy projects.

For his part, Davis said that he’d like to invest in Western North Carolina’s solar energy production to boost the local economy and to extend residential energy tax credits. 

“In our area, 14 of our 17 counties are above the national average in poverty, and I think that green technology is the path forward,” Davis said. “North Carolina is number two in the country in solar energy production, and Western North Carolina ought to be the epicenter of alternative energy for the East Coast.”

Mask not what you can do...

Both Davis and Cawthorn agreed that the COVID-19 pandemic was among the more serious issues facing the country and Western North Carolina, but neither candidate said that they would support a mask-mandate. 

Davis criticized Cawthorn for holding mask-less campaign events for hundreds of supporters, labeling them as irresponsible and calling them “super spreader events.” 

“I don’t hold events unless they comply with the guidelines. It may hamper the campaign, but if you want to be in public service, the first thing you do is not put the public at risk,” Davis said. “I’m not going to do that to pander to my ego or to try to win an election. We’re going to campaign responsibly.”

However, Cawthorn pointed out that Davis had participated in protest where large numbers of people gathered. He also explained that his supporters can be pro-mask and pro-business. 

“If you are in that area of your life where you may have a pre-existing condition or you’re at an age where COVID-10 will greatly affect you, I encourage you to please practice social distancing. Please wear a mask. And If I’m around you, I will wear a mask myself,” Cawthorn said.

“Democrats are painting this [as] a binary choice; that you either have to choose lives and people or you have to choose profits with the Republicans. It’s a logical fallacy [and is] creating a false binary choice that I don’t think actually exists.”

Defunding the police and BLM

While both of the candidates claimed that they backed law enforcement entities, they also said that more should be done to hold officers accountable for violence against Black people and other people of color. 

Davis, who touted his experience as a law enforcement officer and degree in criminal justice, said that while he supports police reform, he doesn’t agree with the messaging of the reform movement. “Whoever came up with the label ‘Defund the police’ did a huge disservice,” he said. 

Instead, Davis said that he supports reimagining the role of police, particularly in respect to issues such as mental health and drug addiction. He also said he would support a bill for first responders and law enforcement that would provide benefits similar to the GI bills. 

“I think serving in law enforcement is a lot like being in the military. There’s a presumption of honor and integrity but it’s a rebuttable presumption,” Davis said. “In the military, we have to get rid of folks that don’t live up to standards and it’s the same in law enforcement.”

Meanwhile, Cawthorn drew a contrast between himself and President Donald Trump on the issue of Black Lives Matter and the recent police violence.

“Of course I believe that black lives matter,” Cawthorn said. “I actually was unhappy with the way that the president treated the death of George Floyd and the lack of empathy he showed after that death happened.”

Cawthorn also acknowledged that officers should be held to a higher standard, but stopped short of agreeing with Davis that policing should be reimagined or reformed. “When you’re dealing with your ex-husband and you dial 911 and he’s pounding on the door, [Democrats] want on the other end of that phone to be a social worker, not someone who’s put a bullet proof vest on and wants to protect your life,” he said.

Under the gun

The candidates differed on the issue of gun control and regulations. While Davis said he “would like to have no assault weapons on the street,” he also pledged to represent all constituents of Western North Carolina and would permit people to own the weapons after going through a background checking process. 

 “I do support strict background checks and red flag laws, and I think if you want to own something beyond a pistol, rifle and a shotgun, that the law here in North Carolina on concealed carry permits would be a good basis for a national standard on a more enhanced weapon like that.” he said. “I grew up hunting. I was a bail bondsman. … I spent 25 years in the military and I’m still a multi-gun owner, so I’m not going to come take your guns. I’ve got my own.” 

Cawthorn, who said that he was “very passionate” about the Second Amendment, asserted that Davis was far more strict on guns than he claimed.

“The Second Amendment was not written so we can go hunting or have a sporting rifle. It was so that we could be able to defend our families and defend ourselves from a tyrannical government,” he said.


Davis spent the last part of the debate defending his actions as a prosecutor in Guantanamo Bay, where in 2005 he was named chief prosecutor of the alleged al Qaeda terrorists imprisoned at the facility. After being asked to use evidence obtained by water-boarding, Davis refused on the grounds that the technique was considered torture. Davis ultimately resigned over the issue.

“I believe in peace through strength. My opponent believes in peace through good manners,” Cawthorn said about the action. 

Davis stood by his decision, noting that the person at the center of the controversy, Salim Ahmed Hamdan, was never tried or convicted of any crimes.

“We didn’t take the Nazis out and shoot them. We gave them a trial,” Davis said.

Night two of the debate will take place on Saturday, Sept. 5 starting at 7:30 p.m. and focus on rural issues, native issues and education. Tune into the debate here.