In late March, a super PAC started by U.S. Rep. Madison Cawthorn’s 2020 Democrat opponent, Moe Davis, endorsed Wendy Nevarez in the Republican primary for N.C.’s 11th Congressional District. The American Muckrakers PAC — also known as the Fire Madison Cawthorn PAC — encouraged Democrats to switch their affiliation to unaffiliated and vote for Nevarez.
“The current NC 11 is not as red as it was in 2020, but it is still an R+ 9 or 10,” Davis, a former U.S. Air Force colonel, said in a post on the strategy. “In my estimation, the best shot to ‘Fire Madison Cawthorn’ after his freshman term (as was the case with his freshman year of college) is in the Republican primary.”
A couple of days later, the PAC unveiled its strategy: endorsing Wendy Nevarez and getting as many Democrats as possible to register as unaffiliated so she can emerge from the crowded Republican primary.
“Wendy Nevarez is a Navy veteran, a wife, mother of four kids, and a descendant of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. Our team evaluated all the candidates and she is the most qualified candidate in the Republican primary for Congress,” David B. Wheeler, president of the American Muckrakers PAC, said in the March 23 statement. “Wendy Navarez has shown she will do the work for our district and get things done in Congress without all the drama of our current Congressman. If Wendy wins, we will all win.”
Wheeler then called for people of all parties in the N.C. mountains to register as unaffiliated so they could vote for Nevarez in the Republican primary.
“I’m a lifelong Democrat,” Wheeler said. “[But] Madison Cawthorn is a clear and present danger to our nation whose re-election must be fought every step of the way. For that reason, I am changing my registration today to unaffiliated, temporarily, so that I can cast my vote for Wendy Nevarez in the May 17th Republican Primary. I hope hard working Democrats, Republicans, and Unaffiliated voters will consider doing the same.”
The title of the press release, “DEMOCRATS ARE URGED TO TEMPORARILY CHANGE REGISTRATION TO UNAFFILIATED BY APRIL 22ND AND CAST THEIR BALLOT IN THE PRIMARY FOR WENDY NEVAREZ,” also made clear this was the strategy.
Mitch Kokai, senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation, told Carolina Journal, “This certainly is an unusual scheme. It’s one that could have far-reaching implications. One suspects that ‘real’ Republicans will object to Democrats jumping into their primary to determine the GOP candidate for the general election. But with a large number of candidates in the race, it’s possible that an influx of single-minded Democrats could make a difference.”
In an interview with CJ on Tuesday, March 29, Nevarez said she had no part in devising the plan and didn’t know they were going to endorse her.
“I had no idea,” Nevarez said. “I have never spoken with them. I believe I got a message from one of them, and I said, ‘I think you’re in charge of this PAC, and per ethics rules we don’t have a conversation.’ I think they were probably trying to let me know what was going on, and I just let them do what they do and I do what I do. So, no, we never had any conversations.”
She also pushed back on claims she is not a true Republican, saying she’s “definitely different than the other seven people in the race,” but that she’s “right of center.”
“As far as being a Republican, I’ve been a Republican for 20 years,” Nevarez said. “I’m a Republican because I believe in small government, fiscal responsibility, free markets and a strong national defense. So, there are tons of things that tie me, just like there are tons of issues that tie Democrats and Republicans together, right?”
When asked about media reports that she supported Hillary Clinton in 2016 and Joe Biden in 2020, Nevarez told CJ, “Here’s the thing, when I’m voting, it’s not about R or D. It’s about the whole sum of the candidate. So I look at their resume, their personality, their life experience, and I stack that up and just look at the qualifications. I don’t really want to go into it much further than that, because, like most of us, we vote the lesser of two evils a lot of times, and the people we’d love to see there aren’t there.”
Nevarez is open about the fact that she’s not as down-the-line conservative as some of the other candidates and says that was likely the reason she was chosen by the Democrat-run PAC. But she says that although she gets called a RINO — Republican in name only — by other Republicans, Nevarez said, “Madison Cawthorn is the RINO. And when I say RINO, I mean representative-in-name-only,” because he often hasn’t been available to people in the district.
“I guess it just goes to show that I’m laser focused on bringing some bipartisanship back to Washington, D.C.,” Nevarez said on the endorsement. “There were other candidates that they could have endorsed and they’re all fighting over the same voter profile. And voters that want to vote for Cawthorn are not going to vote for me. They’re pretty set in their mindset. So I just think they saw something in me that every other candidate doesn’t have, which is a willingness to work across the aisle.”
Among the issues that set her apart from the typical Republican is abortion. On her website, Nevarez said she doesn’t think abortion should be used as birth control. But she then ends her “reproductive rights” statement by saying, “As it stands now, the Supreme Court has ruled that it is constitutional. We must for the sake of uniformity, codify abortion into federal law. Balancing personal rights with the rights to life.”
She told CJ that “Everybody wants to boil it down to labels. So, I’m pro-life and pro-choice,” adding that although she’s a Christian, “I can’t impose my faith on other people.”
In a March 27 debate, the Hendersonville Lighting quoted Nevarez “dropping the F-bomb” and disagreeing with the other candidates on the Jan. 6 riots, as well as supporting the eventual Republican nominee.
But her comments on Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson and abortion seemed to cause the most stir from the conservative crowd gathered.
“So I just want to make this other point that when it comes to abortion,” the Henderson Lightning quotes her as saying. “It inproportionately [sic] affects people who are poor and people of color. It’s interesting. Yeah, so your beloved Mr. Mark Robinson has clearly not had a problem with abortion. So I’ll just leave it with that.”
Nevarez told CJ those comments were “two totally different interactions” and not meant to be one thought. She said she was not intending to say that Robinson had been more likely to be involved with abortion because he was from a poor, minority background. Robinson, the state’s first black lieutenant governor, was raised in poverty and the foster-care system in Greensboro. He recently admitted that, at 20, he and his now wife chose to have an abortion in 1989.
Cawthorn, according to the debate summary, said, “Oh my God,” as she made her comments, and then received applause from the audience when responding, “I will not blame a man who’s gone on a personal journey to go from someone who was pro-choice to now being a pro-life advocate and a champion. I support Mark Robinson.”
But regardless of whether more-conservative Republicans think of her as a “RINO,” some mountain Democrats have determined she’s their best option, since they aren’t confident they can win the general election as Democrats in the deep-red district.
“One potential outcome is the exact opposite of the Democrats’ intent: They could galvanize both Cawthorn supporters and Republican primary voters who don’t like Cawthorn but dislike Democrats even more,” Kokai said. “If that happens, that energy could boost the incumbent’s chances of winning.”
But the PAC is moving full-steam ahead, announcing multiple ad buys to make this strategy more widely known.
“Over the coming days, the American Muckrakers PAC will be releasing radio ads, newspaper ads, and an online campaign to encourage targeted voters to support Ms. Nevarez and for Democrats to temporarily change their registration to unaffiliated in order to vote for Ms. Nevarez,” the press release said. “Changes of party affiliation must be completed by April 22, 2022.”
In response to this direct call from a Democrat-run PAC asking Democrats to re-register as unaffiliated and vote for her, Nevarez insisted she isn’t participating in that strategy.
“I’ve never asked for anybody to change from a Democrat to a Republican or unaffiliated,” Nevarez said. “I believe the PAC has asked that a couple times.”
She said the strategy didn’t even seem necessary, because there are already more unaffiliated voters in the district than Republicans or Democrats. Nevarez said her sense of the race is that among the conservative primary voters who show up to events, she believes they will split their vote seven ways, giving her a path with the moderate Republicans and the unaffiliated. If Davis, Wheeler and their Fire Madison Cawthorn PAC get their way, there will be many more of those unaffiliated voters in her corner as people begin to cast ballots.
“If Democrats are successful in this scheme, expect to see the same type of shenanigans in the future,” Kokai said. “Each party would be likely to look for opportunities to engage in mischief in the other party’s primary. The tactic could prove especially appealing when only one of the parties has a competitive multi-candidate primary with no clear front-runner.”