Eleven years after becoming a national TV sensation, Clay Aiken still attracts a crowd in central North Carolina. In an hour he could only get a block or so down the street during an old textile town’s fall festival while fans stopped to talk and take pictures.
“I can’t believe you’re here!” exclaimed Suzanne Strickland, 23, after she and her mother left their craft booth at Erwin Denim Days. “I saw you watching ‘American Idol’!”
Finishing second for Congress won’t cut it for the 2003 runner-up on the Fox show that vaulted him to a singing career and another second-place finish on NBC’s “Celebrity Apprentice.” Rather, he would just be another Democratic candidate who failed to beat the odds on North Carolina’s congressional map since Republicans redrew it and shifted the delegation’s makeup to the right.
While national Democratic groups haven’t arrived with financial support, Aiken believes there’s a path to victory in the U-shaped 2nd District over Republican Rep. Renee Ellmers. He’s trying to attract independent and Republican voters who recall his appearances as a crooner, and he’s hoping to catch breaks on the waves of unhappiness with Republican state government and gridlocked Washington politics.
“People are very dissatisfied with Congress in general and getting absolutely nothing done,” Aiken said in an interview. He said Ellmers, a nurse, is wrongly fixated on repealing President Barack Obama’s signature health care law, rather than fixing its problems. “If after three or four years, you still haven’t gotten anything done, then what are you getting paid for?”
Ellmers, who like Aiken was a first-time candidate four years ago when she upset Democratic Rep. Bob Etheridge, is throwing political inexperience back at Aiken and suggesting he’s role-playing to win votes.
“He’s an entertainer. He’s an actor,” Ellmers, 50, said in an interview after addressing the Kiwanis Club in Apex earlier this month. “He believes that he can change costume and get into character and speak to whichever group and win them over.”
Ellmers is surely favored in a district anchored by Fort Bragg, affluent suburbs west of Raleigh, retirees near the famous Pinehurst golf resort and solid red south of Greensboro. The 2011 redistricting made the district swing more Republican, as Mitt Romney received nearly 58 percent of the 2012 presidential vote there, according to an analysis by the business advocacy group the North Carolina Chamber.
If the race were competitive, outside groups would be investing in Aiken’s candidacy, said North Carolina Chamber political director Nathan Babcock, but he expected they won’t because they’ve got more pressing races.
Scott Falmlen, a longtime Democratic political consultant in Raleigh, believes there’s a recipe for Democratic success in the district and says Aiken is following it well. But Falmlen isn’t willing to predict a victory. Aiken raised more than $1 million for his campaign since February, benefiting from Broadway and Los Angeles events along the way. He hired veteran strategists and scheduled a bus trip through the district in the campaign’s final three weeks. Ellmers, who has raised more than $1.8 million this cycle, is battling anti-incumbent sentiment.
Aiken has “presented himself as a very credible candidate and I think some people wondered whether that would be the case,” said Falmlen, who isn’t working with Aiken. “He comes across as knowledgeable of the issues.”
During a Saturday in the 2nd District, Aiken, 35, engaged well-wishers as they browsed jewelry and ate barbecue, stopping for photos and hugs. But he also discussed veterans’ medical care and Medicaid expansion. He gave stickers to GOP voters that read “Republaiken,” wordplay on his name and the opposition party.
Ellmers “has done absolutely nothing and I’m ready for a change,” said registered Republican Peter de Young, 67, of Pinehurst, who met Aiken at a street fair in Cameron.
Ellmers, who frequents cable news shows and heads the Republican Women’s Policy Committee, blames Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid for refusing to consider House legislation. “I can’t force the Senate to act, but the American people can,” she said, suggesting they should turn the Senate majority Republican next month.
Aiken has tried to distance himself from Obama, saying he disagrees with him on issues and believes several changes should be made to the president’s signature health care law. But during their lone televised debate, Ellmers contended that, in the end, “you support Obamacare.”
Aiken is a gay man running in a largely conservative district. Among passers-by in Erwin, it wasn’t an issue. “That’s his choice, that’s his life. It doesn’t affect me at all,” said Susan Boggs, 38, of Erwin.
Aiken supports gay marriage while Ellmers does not, though she publicly opposed the 2012 constitutional amendment in North Carolina that banned gay marriage. Both said during their debate that the issue of same-sex marriage, which is being decided in federal courts across the country, is out of their hands.
Aiken received almost 12 million votes nationwide while narrowly losing to “Idol” winner Ruben Studdard in 2003. This year, he edged out a well-known local businessman in the Democratic primary. It may take the ardent support of local “Claymates” — Aiken’s fan base during his “Idol” run— to win the title of congressman.