WASHINGTON — North Carolina has become difficult terrain for Democrats since the Republican-controlled Legislature redrew congressional districts in 2011 with the goal of more or less eliminating them from the state’s House delegation.
But Clay Aiken, the 2003 runner-up on “American Idol,” said Wednesday that he was going against the odds to make a run in North Carolina’s 2nd District. “This is not a whim for me,” he said in a telephone interview. “I’ve been thinking of this for over a year.”
The race will be an uphill one for Aiken, 35, who is running as a Democrat in a district that Mitt Romney won in 2012 with 58 percent of the vote. Put another way: “No chance,” said Nathan Gonzales, deputy editor of The Rothenberg Political Report.
But Aiken, who has to get past two primary opponents, said he thinks
votes cast by the Republican incumbent, Rep. Renee Ellmers, including some that reduced funding for military programs in a state with an important Army base, give him an opening. “My opponent is going to have to run on her record,” he said, noting that Romney’s showing in the district had been better than hers.
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Ellmers, a nurse who ran in 2010 with the support of the tea-party movement and barely squeaked into office, has dismissed Aiken as unable to win “Idol” and thus ill-equipped to unseat her. (Her spokeswoman did not respond to emails requesting comment.) She quickly grew close to her party’s leadership team and helps it gather votes for tough bills.
Aiken’s announcement video focuses on challenges he faced in his early life, with a mother who escaped her abusive husband, and his experiences as a teacher. He makes only brief references to his musical career.
Aiken’s fame carries advantages and encumbrances. His name recognition will attract attention — especially among the so-called Claymates who make up his fan base and took to Twitter on Wednesday to offer their support — and possible cash infusions to his campaign. But his celebrity status could also spark skepticism among voters about his policy prowess. Further, he is subject to such inconveniences as the dissemination of artifacts from his stardom, such as old photos of his being licked by a giraffe.
“It’s a double-edged sword,” Aiken conceded. When people hear he is running, “the first reaction is ‘Oh, really?’”
“I’m not going to lie about that,” he said. But “if people don’t take me seriously, I think that can be combated when people listen to me talk. It usually only takes me 30 minutes to let people know that on those issues I know, I know what I am talking about.” The other side of fame “is a benefit, and I am happy to have it; because of my platform that I have, people do listen.”
Aiken is initially stressing his career as a special-education teacher and his experiences working with UNICEF in Somalia, and he points out that he was appointed by President George W. Bush to a presidential commission on special education, a wave to bipartisan possibilities.
Aiken is expected to face former state Commerce Secretary Keith Crisco of Asheboro and licensed professional counselor Toni Morris of Fayetteville in the Democratic primary in May.
Aiken, who is gay and has a 5-year-old son, also seems disinclined to focus on his earlier denouncements of North Carolina’s constitutional amendment outlawing same-sex marriage. “I am amazed that people think I have spoken out,” he said, although he did give a speech on the issue, participate in a video in support of same-sex marriage and speak about the subject on a Sunday talk show.
But after that, “I don’t think I said another word,” Aiken said. “My position is clear. That’s a settled issue in North Carolina, and there is nothing a congressperson can do about it anyway.” The issue was not of pressing concern to voters in his state, who were more worried, he said, about “the unemployment rate and the lack of jobs.”
“People are worried about paying for their kids’ college and finding work,” he added.
Life on Day One of the race was a tad overwhelming. He gave what he thought was an interview to a man he thought was a reporter but turned out to be an adviser looking for a job. “He said, ‘Don’t wear that tie,’” Aiken recalled.
Also, for those who wonder if he thinks Harry Connick Jr. is a good addition to the “Idol” judge panel, sorry.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I haven’t watched the show in years.”
Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.