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Some WNC Republicans won’t back Trump-endorsed candidate

As Republicans across North Carolina’s 11th Congressional District head to the polls, some of them are bucking their party and their president by putting principle over politics.

Not only are they saying they won’t support Lynda Bennett in the Republican Second Primary runoff against Madison Cawthorn on June 23, they’re also saying they won’t support her in November if she wins, despite her endorsement by President Donald Trump.

“I love the man. I love what he's doing,” said Henderson County Republican Jim Andrews. “The fact of the matter is, he's probably never seen Lynda Bennett on stage. He's probably never spoken to her. She talks about how she can't wait to campaign with Trump. I guarantee you — Donald Trump does not want her speaking or campaigning with him. She would embarrass him.”

How we got here

Maggie Valley real estate agent Lynda Bennett and Henderson County real estate investor Madison Cawthorn have been locked in a contentious Second Primary in NC11 since March 3, when the two rose to the top of a crowded 12-candidiate Primary Election field.

While Cawthorn was relatively unknown at the time, Bennett had the endorsements of House Freedom Caucus member Jim Jordan as well as the man who’d held the seat since 2013, powerful and popular Asheville Republican Rep. Mark Meadows.

Even those high-profile endorsements couldn’t help her reach the 30 percent threshold needed to avoid the runoff — called a “Second Primary” in North Carolina — but the resentment against Bennett in local Republican circles goes back much further than that.

It began on the day before the candidate sign-up period ended last December, when Meadows dropped a 4 a.m. announcement that he wouldn’t seek re-election to his seat. The announcement surprised almost everyone, except Bennett.

Just two hours later, Bennett received an endorsement from the Asheville Tea PAC. She also had her campaign website up and ready to go, because it was registered back in October by someone named “Scott Meadows.”

Eleven other Republicans managed to file for the unexpectedly vacant seat, but when early voting for the March 3 Primary Election began on Feb. 13, many of them were upset to see volunteers handing out flyers listing Bennett as the “official” conservative candidate.

Those flyers were created by a two-day-old PAC with significant financial ties to Bennett’s campaign. Other candidates said they hadn’t been interviewed for the endorsement. Some threatened legal action and called on Bennett to drop out of the race.

A complaint was later filed against Bennett with the N.C. State Board of Elections.

The Macon County Republican Party denounced the endorsement as “sleazy shenanigans” from a “rookie campaign.”

Even the NCGOP’s 11th District Chairman, Aubrey Woodard, called it a “transgression” that shouldn’t have happened.

Bennett’s baggage may have prevented her from running away with the nomination back in March; instead, she earned 20,606 votes, topping Cawthorn’s 18,481.

Afterward, most of the other Republicans in the field — accounting for more than 50,000 votes — endorsed Cawthorn, while none have endorsed Bennett.

Meanwhile, Bennett’s refused to debate Cawthorn and has also refused to speak with most independent media outlets, although the state’s top election official did say she violated election law by conducting an interview inside a polling place with Asheville-based WLOS-TV.

Like Jim Andrews, Buncombe County resident Richard Bernier, 55, a retired medical sales professional, voted for Trump in 2016, plans to do so in November and has been a Republican all his life.

“Not knowing either [Bennett or Cawthorn] gave me an opportunity to learn about them and to meet each one of them. What really turned me off was how Lynda Bennett rolled out her campaign,” Bernier said. “It set a very bad tone in which she had Congressmen Meadows’ brother set up a website just a few days before the announcement. That smelled fishy.”

Linda Johnson, 64, a retired RN from Henderson County, has been a registered Republican for more than 40 years, and also plans to vote for Trump for the second time in November.

“In my opinion, before the primary ever got started there was dishonesty,” Johnson said.

Perhaps the most prominent Republican to sum up the acrimony aimed at Bennett is Michelle Woodhouse, a 50-year-old small business owner from Henderson County. She’s been a registered Republican since the late 1990s and has been rather active in the state’s Republican agenda.

Woodhouse was a volunteer for John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign, has worked with Women for Burr as well as Women for Tillis, and is the current co-chair of the Dan Forest for Governor campaign in Buncombe County. She attended the Republican National Convention in Cleveland in 2016, Trump’s inauguration in 2017 and will cast her second vote for Trump this November.

“Bennett does not have the intellect, the disposition, or even the coachability or personality to listen to what others say. She's a terrible listener. She has horrible platform skills. What I have seen from her for this entire campaign has shown me that this is not a woman who is suited to serve in the people's house,” said Woodhouse. “Her integrity is highly questionable. This woman does not have what it takes to fight for me as a constituent in Western North Carolina.”

The concerns Woodhouse has about Bennett’s suitability for the job are so strong that it was Woodhouse who filed the NCSBE complaint against Bennett for the sham “conservative” ballot endorsement.

“You have the sham ballot, you have FEC questions regarding her campaign colluding with PACs, you have her financial report to the end of March — she had 12 local donors. Just 12 people had donated to her campaign that could vote for her,” said Woodhouse. “The rest of the money, nearly a million dollars, all came from outside of NC11.”

Bennett’s latest gaffe, the improper polling place interview conducted with WLOS on June 4, only serves as further example of Bennett’s mindset, according to Woodhouse.

“It just continues to show that this is a woman who thinks that she is going to be crowned the next congresswoman in NC11,” she said. “She hasn't earned it. She feels that she's entitled to it. And at every turn, that's how she behaves. This is a woman who just does not feel that the rules apply to her, that she's going to bulldoze her way through this and the rest of us just need to get in line. I continue to see questionable behavior from her at each and every turn.”

One incident mentioned by Woodhouse occurred at an executive committee meeting of the NCGOP’s 11th District.

“I've seen her unhinged,” she said. “I have watched her in person completely go off on fellow Republicans. I watched her stomp her feet, cross her arms, turn her back, and get in the face of the chair of the district. I watched her scream and yell at a fellow candidate who had lost that was there to represent Cawthorn.”

The animosity against Bennett isn’t just limited to card-carrying Republicans. Even some right-leaning unaffiliated voters say they won’t vote for Bennett, now or ever. That’s important in this particular race, because voting is also open to unaffiliated voters who drew a Republican ballot in the March primary.

“No, I will not. I would not, definitely not, vote for Lynda Bennett,” said Haywood County resident Charlene Bryant, 63. “I don’t want to vote for a Democrat, either — I'm totally against Democrats at this point — but the thing about it is, I probably wouldn't vote for anybody in that position. I don't know what I would do. What I see is, there is no other option at this point than Madison Cawthorn.”

Bryant, as well as fellow Haywood County unaffiliated voter Joy Deitle, voted for Trump in 2016 and plans to do so again, but like Bryant, Deitle is no fan of Bennett’s.

“It's going to be a really hard decision if she wins,” said Deitle, who retired as a Lt. Commander from U.S. Navy after 17 years. “Lynda Bennett doesn't have the ability to work in the D.C. swamp. She doesn't think for herself. She’s going to be manipulated. I won't consider the Democratic candidate, so probably I'll skip that race all together.”

Richard Bernier said he’d likely skip the race in the November General Election if Bennett’s name is on the ballot, as did Jim Andrews. Linda Johnson said she was keeping her options open.

“There have been times, especially in local elections, that I've voted for the Democrat based on the person and what I knew about the person,” she said. “I'll have to make that decision when the time comes. If the Democrat wins, at least the GOP has another opportunity in two years. Should Bennett end up in the General Election and Trump drags her across the line, that will be a lifetime appointment.”

Woodhouse, however, is clear on what she’ll do if Bennett manages to defeat Cawthorn for the GOP nomination.

“I will be voting only for Republicans. That's my goal in November from President Trump down to county commissioner, top to bottom, I am there to vote for and get Republicans into office,” she said. “Lynda Bennett is not a Republican. Lynda Bennett is a Tea Party fringe candidate. I listed off for you all of the organizations and groups that I've worked with for Republicans for well over a decade, and Lynda Bennett has never been part of any of those. Lynda Bennett has hired and surrounded herself locally only with Tea Party members. It's her only endorsement in NC11.”

The Trump endorsement

By and large, the voters contacted by The Smoky Mountain News for this story had little internal conflict over disagreeing with their president, a man they all agree they wholeheartedly support.

“I do not have any issue in going against what President Trump has recommended as far as voting for Lynda Bennett,” Linda Johnson said. “I have no problem with that. None.”

Richard Bernier — and others — don’t fault Trump for making the endorsement, but do suspect that Trump had never been given the full picture of Lynda Bennett, or of Madison Cawthorn.

“I'm not sure that President Trump is aware of all the issues and the problems that Mrs. Bennett has produced here in the 11th District. On this one, I think the people are better suited to make up their own minds,” Bernier said. “While I respect President Trump, I would fully disagree on this particular primary runoff candidate. When Madison does win and he goes on to the general and gets in, President Trump's going to realize this is one new freshmen that's going to really be able to excite the crowds and bring momentum.”

Charlene Bryant took a similar position.

“I think that President Trump does not know Linda Bennett like Haywood County knows Lynda Bennett,” Bryant said. “If he knew her he would say the same thing that he has said about Nancy Pelosi, that she is a sick person and she's got some mental problems, because she appears to be unstable.”

That’s similar to the justification cited by Joy Deitle.

“I don't think he knows Lynda Bennett like I know Lynda. I can think for myself and I think that she's corrupt and I think he wants her and they want her because they can manipulate her,” she said.

Michelle Woodhouse won’t say the president was wrong, but she is disappointed Cawthorn apparently didn’t get the same opportunity Bennett did.

“I do support the precedent and I'll vote for him and do everything I can to make sure he wins reelection in 2020. It’s the most important thing for our country,” Woodhouse said. “I don't believe that President Trump had spoken to Madison Cawthorn when he made that endorsement. I think had he spoken to both candidates, that endorsement would be much different.”

Jim Andrews sees the whole situation of Republicans sitting on their hands for Bennett in November as one that’s easily avoidable.

“I just pray that voters in early voting and on Tuesday put Madison into November so that we have a shot at saving this seat and not getting another liberal here in our mountains, making decisions,” Andrews said. “If she were to win [the runoff], the seat is gone. The seat goes to [retired Air Force colonel, former Guantanamo Bay prosecutor and Democratic nominee] Moe Davis. He'll rip her to shreds. She has nothing to stand on. All of her lies and all of that, they’re going to come out, they are going to be in every publication. The liberals are gonna are gonna destroy her. She doesn't have a chance against Moe Davis.”

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