The possibility of a Clay Aiken candidacy for Congress has generated significant buzz as political observers say the gay singer and “American Idol” runner-up has plenty to offer, although big questions remain about whether he could pull off a win.
Last week, the Washington Blade first reported that Clay Aiken was “actively considering” a run for North Carolina’s 2nd congressional district. In a follow-up report, the Washington Post confirmed that Aiken was weighing a bid for the seat, which is currently held by Rep. Renee Ellmers (R-N.C.).
Democratic sources familiar with his plans told the Blade that Aiken has spoken with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, met with political operatives in Washington and Raleigh and paid a visit to the D.C.-based Hart Research Associates to examine polling.
It’s unclear when — if at all — Aiken will make an announcement on whether he’ll pursue a bid for Congress. Via Twitter, Raleigh news affiliate WRAL-TV reported that Aiken told a station producer prior to the Blade report that he wasn’t running for Congress, but the singer hasn’t said anything about a run directly since the Blade broke the story last week.
Ian Palmquist, former chief of Equality North Carolina, said he thinks the general election in a district largely comprised of the Raleigh suburbs, will be tough for any Democrat, but not impossible for Aiken.
“Clay Aiken has some real strengths: He’s from the district, he’s a former teacher, he’s well-liked, and saying he has name recognition is an understatement,” Palmquist said. “To be a strong candidate he would have to show voters a more policy-oriented side than they know him for now and earn the support of key primary constituencies, including African Americans.”
Palmquist added Aiken’s fame alone from his music and Broadway career after his 2003 stint on “American Idol” won’t be enough to propel him to victory.
“His fan base doesn’t necessarily align with his progressive politics, so he would have to expand his base of support significantly to succeed,” Palmquist said.
Although a Republican currently sits in U.S. House seat for North Carolina’s 2nd congressional district, the area was formerly represented by a Democrat in Congress prior to redistricting and the Tea Party boomlet in 2010.
Still, the district is favorable to Republicans. Ellmers won re-election in the district by taking 55.9 percent of the vote in the 2012 election — a year that was favorable to Democrats. Moreover, Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney in the same year beat Obama in the district by 15.6 points.
Stuart Rothenberg, editor of the Rothenberg Political Report, said Aiken doesn’t have a prayer in the general election against Ellmers.
“His chances of winning the general election? Probably approaching zero,” Rothenberg said. “And that’s being generous. Both McCain and Romney carried the district easily. It isn’t competitive, especially in a midterm election with President Obama’s job approval sitting where it is nationally.”
Aiken, who came out as gay in 2008 in People magazine, also would have competition for the Democratic nomination to run for the seat. Former North Carolina Commerce Secretary Keith Crisco officially announced his candidacy on Monday. Also in the ring is Houston Barnes, an attorney.
The filing deadline to participate in the primary is Feb. 28. The primary itself in North Carolina is set for May 6.
The DCCC hasn’t responded to the Blade’s request for comment on a potential run by Aiken for weeks — before and after the initial report. DCCC spokesperson David Bergstein wouldn’t confirm his interest in running to other media outlets, including Politico, but said Ellmers deserves a challenger.
“Congresswoman Ellmers is responsible for the most unpopular and reckless Congress in history that’s put the middle class at greater risk but it’s up to potential candidates to talk about whether they’re interested in running for Congress, not us,” Bergstein reportedly said.
The Ellmers campaign declined to comment on the possibility of going up against Aiken during the general election.
Although the “American Idol” runner-up is best known for his music and Broadway career, he’s also drawn on his fame to promote causes as an activist. He co-founded the the National Inclusion Project, formerly the Bubel/Aiken Foundation, which seeks to help children with disabilities. Tapped as a national ambassador for the United States Fund for UNICEF in 2004, Aiken has travelled to Afghanistan, Indonesia, Uganda, Mexico, Kenya and Somalia as part of aid missions.
He’s also taken part in LGBT activism. In 2012, just before North Carolina voted to approve a ban on same-sex marriage known as Amendment One, Aiken appeared on CBS’ “Face the Nation” to speak out against the measure.
In 2010, the singer appeared at a briefing on Capitol Hill on behalf of the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network, or GLSEN, to urge passage of anti-bullying legislation with LGBT protections known as the Student Non-Discrimination Act and the Safe Schools Improvement Act.
Daryl Presgraves, a GLSEN spokesperson, said GLSEN started working with Aiken four years ago, and in addition to wanting to use his platform to protect LGBT youth, he showed a specific interest in policy.
“After he gave a powerful and moving speech at a congressional briefing we held in 2010 in support of the Safe Schools Improvement Act and Student Non-Discrimination Act, it wouldn’t have surprised any of us at GLSEN if you told us that he would consider running for office one day,” Presgraves said. “He has a clear passion for helping others and recognizes the power to do so through policy.”