AILSA CHANG, HOST:
The North Carolina mountains are home to one of the most colorful and intense congressional races. The Republican candidate, Madison Cawthorn, would become the youngest member of Congress if elected. But his Democratic opponent says Cawthorn is a racist and a liar. Steve Harrison from member station WFAE has more.
STEVE HARRISON, BYLINE: For years, Republicans have looked for new faces to update their brand. This year, they seem to have found one - 25-year-old Madison Cawthorn, who was paralyzed from a car crash after high school. He gave a primetime speech at the Republican National Convention.
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MADISON CAWTHORN: It took me over a year to recover. My first public outing in a wheelchair was to a professional baseball game. You know, before my accident, I was 6-foot-3. I stood out in a crowd. But as I wheeled through the stadium, I felt invisible.
HARRISON: Cawthorn is running in the conservative 11th District, which had elected Mark Meadows, now President Trump's chief of staff. But what was supposed to be a shoo-in for Republicans is now at risk. Cawthorn has been criticized for a social media post where he smiled in front of one of Hitler's retreats, a trip Cawthorn said was on his bucket list. He's been accused of aggressive, unwanted sexual advances. And last week a Cawthorn-created website attacked a Nashville journalist, Tom Fiedler. It said Fiedler was working for, quote, "nonwhite males who aimed to ruin white males." Cawthorn said it was a syntax error and changed the wording to instead say the journalist was a defender of left-wing identity politics.
MOE DAVIS: I've been direct in calling out Cawthorn for what he is - you know, racist and unqualified and, you know, a sexual predator and a habitual liar. That's not defaming his character. It's defining it.
HARRISON: That's his opponent Democrat Moe Davis, a retired Air Force colonel who was a Guantanamo Bay prosecutor.
DAVIS: The professionals that have been doing this for a while that have been helping me, you know, said there's no upside to beating up a kid in a wheelchair. You can't win that battle. But it doesn't give him a free pass.
HARRISON: Like the president, Davis loves Twitter. He says the platform lets him speak directly to the people. Before he ran for office, Davis last year riffed on Michelle Obama's line that when Republicans go low, Democrats go high. Davis said that's BS and that when GOP extremists go low, he tweeted, we stomp their scrawny, pasty necks with our heels. No way, says Republican volunteer Eric Field of Rutherford County.
ERIC FIELD: I took great offense at a comment he made, where he's like, OK, not every Republican is a Nazi, but all Nazis are Republicans. It's like, OK.
HARRISON: Despite his inflammatory statements, Davis says some Republicans have told him they're voting for him because Cawthorn is too young. But Cawthorn is also attracting Joe Biden voters like Carmen Jackson of Gilkey.
CARMEN JACKSON: I like his energy.
JACKSON: Yeah, I do. I mean, I think he made some bold mistakes by saying some things and got caught. Of course, who doesn't when they start something like that? But he was motivated and lots of good energy, which is something I'm looking forward to.
HARRISON: In a court-ordered redraw last year, the 11th District now has the liberal city of Asheville, but it would still be a long shot for Davis to win. Trump won the new district by double digits.
For NPR News, I'm Steve Harrison in Rutherford County.
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