Madison Cawthorn
Madison Cawthorn (R-NC) (Photo: Gage Skidmore/Flickr)

By David Morgan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The antic-ridden career of Republican U.S. Representative Madison Cawthorn comes down to the wire in North Carolina on Tuesday, as voters choose whether to keep the conservative firebrand in office after a string of self-inflicted controversies.

A nude video, claims of being invited to a cocaine-fueled Washington orgy by leaders he respected, two attempts to carry a gun onto an airplane and calling Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy a "thug" in the midst of a Russian invasion have turned key colleagues against the 26-year-old, who is Congress's youngest member.

"The establishment Republicans in North Carolina are embarrassed by Madison Cawthorn," said Chris Cooper, a political science professor at Western Carolina University, which is located in the 11th congressional district that Cawthorn represents.

He faces a challenge for his party's nomination from state Senator Chuck Edwards, who has gained ground in polls, along with support from the Republican super PAC Results for NC.

Cawthorn's staff did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

"I just see a lack of judgment," said Republican U.S. Senator Thom Tillis, who says Cawthorn has not demonstrated a serious interest in serving a legislator even when the state has been hit by flooding.

"It just makes me wonder how focused he is on serving the people of his district, versus focused on increasing his political stature. I have no patience for anybody who's got a focus on the latter," Tillis said.

Cawthorn was seen as a rising star of the Republican Party after the political newcomer defeated a Trump-endorsed candidate in 2020.

This time, Cawthorn has the endorsement of Donald Trump, who pleaded on his behalf on the day before Tuesday's primary.

"When Madison was first elected to Congress, he did a great job. Recently, he made some foolish mistakes, which I don't believe he'll make again ... let's give Madison a second chance," the former president said in a post on the Truth Social media platform.

Cawthorn has seen his lead in opinion polls collapse over the past two months, amid a barrage of attacks from two super PACs with backing from Republicans and Democrats.

In the closing days of the primary race, Results for NC Inc, which has supported Tillis, ran a 30-second ad accusing Cawthorn of being a reckless playboy out to slash spending on Social Security and Medicare.

Tillis has endorsed Edwards, a 61-year-old legislator and local businessman who is touting an "America First" agenda that is likely to appeal to Trump voters in the district.

Cawthorn and Edwards are among eight candidates seeking the party nomination to square off against a Democratic candidate in the Nov. 8 election for the U.S. House of Representatives.

Political analysts say Cawthorn continues to enjoy strong backing among hard core Trump supporters and could still emerge the victor.

(Reporting by David Morgan; Editing by Scott Malone and Bill Berkrot)