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Bennett dodging debate, Cawthorn says

Madison Cawthorn Madison Cawthorn

Congressional candidate Madison Cawthorn says his opponent in the runoff for the Republican nomination is dodging his efforts to meet face to face in a debate, accusing her of a "Joe Biden strategy."

Cawthorn, a Hendersonville native, and Lynda Bennett are vying for the nomination for the seat that became vacant when U.S. Mark Meadows resigned to become President Trump's chief of staff. Early voting is under way and the runoff Election Day is June 23.

Bennett has ramped up a heavy air war against Cawthorn, running TV spots that say he lacks the experience to serve in Congress. Cawthorn, with less cash on hand, issued a news release on Tuesday challenging her to debate.

"The people of Western North Carolina deserve to have a representative who will stand and fight, one who will passionately articulate what they believe in and defend the cause of conservatism," he said in the news release.

A live debate "is not her strong suit," Cawthorn said in an interview last week at his campaign headquarters. "In my mind if you're not willing to show up and put on display the way you can defend conservatism or be willing to open yourself to tough questioning from constituents then how are you going to be able represent them in Washington?"

Jane Bilello, a Tea Party activist from Flat Rock who was handbilling for Bennett at the Board of Elections on opening day of early voting last week, defended her candidate's record.

"She's had 35 years of business experience," Bilello said. "She's run three businesses, she's made payroll, she's an entrepreneur, she has volunteered extensively in the community. She's got 35 years of a stellar reputation of giving back to the community."

Bennett, she added, has support that will enable her to become effectively immediately if she wins the job.

"She's got all of these folks behind her and these are all of Trump's allies, inner circle," she said. "She's already got a built-in support system so when these businesses get up and running they've got somebody that they can talk to. She's been meeting with a lot of these businesses, whether it's restaurants or car dealerships, on getting up and running (and asking) 'What is it that you need that we can help you with?' I know she's helped several of them already."

Cawthorn said  Bennett avoids large settings.

"I've never seen her at a town hall with more than four people because she's not doing very many," he said. "I think it's a Joe Biden strategy. Our best way to attack her is just to directly quote her. Whenever she opens her mouth, it's a win for us."

What would he ask Bennett if she agreed to a debate?

"My question would be, Why do you value D.C. politicians' opinions over that of constituents in Western North Carolina? She literally said, 'Jim Jordan, Ted Cruz, Mark Meadows — they're all going to be up there holding me accountable if I mess up. They'll say, Lynda get your head on straight.'

"I'm going to be accountable to people of Western North Carolina," he said. "That's why I only accept local endorsements."

Cawthorn has been endorsed by more than 40 county commissioners, sheriffs and school board members.

"Whenever you allow somebody to help you get into office, you're going to have to pay the piper. One day they're going to knock on the door and say, 'Hey, I need you to vote this way.' You will be voting for something that benefits his constituency instead of your own ... If you owe anybody other than the people of Western North Carolina, you're not going to be doing your job right."

"The majority of her money comes from out of state," he added. "She only had 15 individual donors, one of them being Mark Meadows, from Western North Carolina, whereas I had over 3,000. She has a very short list of donors."

Campaign reports showed that Cawthorn had $388,216 in campaign money and spent $366,070 with $22,146 cash on hand. Although he raised $65,000 from individuals, the vast majority of his war chest, $311,000, came from his loan to the campaign, according to his campaign's March 31 report with the Federal Elections Commission. Bennett had raised $215,211 and spent $133,806, leaving $81,405 cash on hand. She had $87,000 in contributions from individuals, the FEC said.

Bilello said a debate would not serve the interest of the Republican Party.

"A debate between two Republicans is nothing more than giving fodder to the left," she said. "You're giving them talking points for November. They're both going to stand on the same principles. There's no getting around it. The only difference between the two of them is Lynda's got 35 years of stellar business experience, raised two kids. It's nonsensical to have something like that. Forums are wonderful because people can come and they can sit there and ask her any question they want to ask."