HENDERSONVILLE, NC — In his campaign headquarters the morning after his election victory, Chuck Edwards showed no interest in dissecting one of the biggest political upheavals yet in this year’s Republican primaries.
Mr. Edwards, 61, a three-term senator and business owner, thwarted the turbulent re-election bid of North Carolina Representative Madison Cawthorn, defeating him in Tuesday’s primary in a rare defeat of a Trump-backed Republican incumbent.
“I’m excited about the opportunity to unite the Republican Party, put the primaries behind us and turn our attention to the real issues,” Mr. Edwards said Wednesday, sitting at a sleek mahogany conference table in his campaign office in downtown. Hendersonville. †
What went unsaid was that many voters saw him as the establishment candidate taking advantage of the boost from the old guard Republicans at home and in Washington. Cawthorn, 26, had alienated two powerful Republicans with a litany of political and personal mistakes and scandal: California Representative Kevin McCarthy, the House minority leader, and North Carolina Senator Thom Tillis.
A political group that supported Mr Tillis, who supported Mr Edwards, put money into an ad campaign that depicted Mr Cawthorn as a fame-seeking liar. Other prominent North Carolina Republicans, including the Speaker of the State House and State Senate leaders, also sided with Mr. Edwards.
In most Republican primaries across the country, old-fashioned establishment candidates in the Romney and Bush form have been on the run amid internal party battles and challenges from a far-right wing boosted by former President Donald J. Trump. But as Edwards’s low-key post-election stance suggested, the state establishment seemed unwilling to claim victory, while the word establishment itself has become an insult in Republican politics.
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Asked about those who saw him as the established name in the race, Mr Edwards said people had different definitions of the label.
“It is true that I have established conservative principles and have a track record of getting things done,” he said. “I’ve found that I can cut taxes. I’ve established that I can balance budgets. I have determined that I can file bills to ban refuge cities.”
Of course, the defeat of Mr. Cawthorn is not just the work of the establishment. He appeared to struggle with two key demographics: unaffiliated voters, who make up more than 40 percent of his district, and those in Henderson County, which includes his hometown of Hendersonville, and which helped him win the last Republican primaries. .
A barrage of bad press and personal and political errors helped voters turn against Mr. Cawthorn. Many said in interviews that they still supported Mr. Trump, but that they viewed Mr. Cawthorn as irresponsible, immature and inappropriate for public office. Mr. McCarthy, for his part, told reporters in March that he had spoken with Mr. Cawthorn after the freshman congressman suggested that members of his own party had invited him to orgies and to use cocaine on them.
mr. Cawthorn had been charged with insider trading, arrested for speeding, charged with driving with a revoked license and arrested for attempting to run a weapon through airport security a second time. Photos and videos of him partying and mimicking sexual antics circulated. Most damaging were reports that he frequently missed votes and had left the offices of his constituencies.
mr. Edwards jumped into the race after Mr. Cawthorn announced last year that he would be walking in a new district near Charlotte. mr. Cawthorn eventually changed his mind and returned to his old district after the new district was redrawn and democratically overturned.
Mr. Edwards, who owns several McDonald’s franchises and has served in the state legislature since 2016, has built a staunch conservative brand to the right of what used to be considered the traditional Republican establishment. He has taken steps to review tax laws, pass a constitutional amendment for voter identification and require county sheriffs to work with immigration enforcement agencies.
In his campaign office Wednesday, days after a racially motivated mass shooting at a Buffalo supermarket, Mr. Edwards that he did not believe that restricting gun ownership for law-abiding citizens would solve social problems. And he declined to condemn the racist conspiracy theory that police say motivated the Buffalo shooter — and it was echoed by members of his own party. That baseless theory essentially argues that elites are using immigration and declining birth rates to replace white people and destroy white culture.
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“I don’t focus on rhetoric, I focus on results,” said Mr. Edwards. “I condemn open borders and the fact that we are losing the sanctity of our nation by not enforcing immigration laws at the border.”
On Tuesday night, at a shuttered mechanics shop in Hendersonville that had been converted into an event space for Mr. Cawthorn’s election party, the mood was high as people mingled with snow cones and cornhole games. Fold-out tables were decorated with small candy bowls and flower vases as the centerpieces. There were party favors for the guests: cupcakes, star-shaped sunglasses, and beaded necklaces in red, white, and blue. A face painter waited for the children to stop at her booth.
But as night fell, the crowd grew bigger and angrier. People chatted wearily around the fold-out tables, comparing the results on their phones.
mr. Cawthorn abruptly conceded the race to Mr. Edwards, shortly after meeting Mr. Trump praised his support and expressed confidence that the eventual results would break in his favor to cheers from supporters. mr. Edwards said that when the two spoke that night, Mr. Cawthorn offered his full support.
Tuesday night late on Twitter, Mr Cawthorn congratulated Mr. Edwards on securing the Republican nomination. He wrote that it was time for the Republicans in the district “to rally behind the Republican ticket to defeat the Democrat nominee in November.”
Mr. Cawthorn’s spokesman said Wednesday that the tweet was the congressman’s only statement for now.
Outside of Mr. Edwards’ campaign headquarters, people strolling down a shop-lined street were not surprised by his victory. Milton Ready, a North Carolina historian who identified himself as an unaffiliated voter who leans Democratic, said he voted for Mr. Edwards because he resembled an incumbent Republican — but not one obsessed with publicity.
“And,” added Mr. Ready to add, “I don’t think anyone in the world cares about his sex life or how fast he drives.”