Clay Aiken has received critical and popular acclaim for his music career following his runner-up performance on “American Idol,” but he’s getting mixed reviews for his fundraising efforts as he seeks to win a seat in Congress.
According to the most recent campaign finance reports from June 30, Aiken has raised nearly $687,000 for his bid to represent North Carolina’s 2nd congressional district in the U.S. House and has $209,000 in cash on hand. By comparison, his opponent, incumbent Rep. Renee Ellmers (R-N.C.) has raised $1.3 million for her campaign and has $405,000 in her coffers.
The effort to unseat Ellmers from the Republican-majority district outside of Raleigh was always going to be an uphill fight for Aiken, but one political analyst says the gay singer’s aspirations are hampered further by his performance as a fundraiser.
Stuart Rothenburg, editor of the Rothenburg Political Report, said the amount Aiken has raised is “low, it’s not horrendous, it’s low,” but makes his challenge even more difficult.
“When you look at his money, he doesn’t compare to these serious candidates,” Rothenburg said. “You can’t run a media campaign on that. He needs to have four or five times more in cash on hand on June 30. It just adds to the overwhelming evidence that he’s not a serious threat.”
Other congressional candidates who are considered more competitive are faring significantly better than Aiken. Richard Tisei, the gay Republican seeking to oust Rep. John Tierney (D-Mass.), has raised more than $1.2 million and has $820,000 in cash on hand. Stacy Appel, a Democrat who’s running in Iowa’s 3rd congressional district, has raised nearly $1.2 million and has $725,000 in the bank.
Rothenberg said he doesn’t know why Aiken hasn’t raised more money, especially given his name recognition, but pointed to a number of factors that could be in play.
“A lot of these candidates spend hours on the phone raising money, and they have to be very disciplined, they have to have good fundraising folks to force them to stay on the phone, to give them good lists,” Rothenberg said. “I don’t know whether he’s doing that. At another level, it’s a very difficult district, and maybe he’s having a hard time convincing people he can win.”
Aiken secured the Democratic nomination to run in North Carolina’s 2nd congressional district, by narrowly winning a primary against his opponent, former North Carolina Commerce Secretary Keith Crisco, who died suddenly in a fall before a recount could be tabulated.
During redistricting following the 2010 census, North Carolina Republicans changed the district almost entirely so that it includes no part of Raleigh and comprises Randolph County, which Mitt Romney won by 75 percent in 2012 and has consistently voted for a Republican presidential candidate since 1940, according to Real Clear Politics. The Washington Blade could find no polls on the race between Aiken and Ellmers.
It should be noted that Aiken hasn’t received an endorsement from the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund, which endorses LGBT candidates with a realistic chance of winning. However, he has received an endorsement from the Human Rights Campaign.
Tucker Middleton, an Aiken spokesperson, disputed the notion that the campaign was afflicted by poor fundraising. In the second quarter, Middleton noted, Aiken raised $450,000 compared to the $396,000 raised by Ellmers.
Middleton also pointed to the number of individual donors who contributed to Aiken’s campaign, which he said was higher than the number of those who gave to Ellmers.
“We’ve raised over $580,000 from individual contributors since Clay announced his candidacy on Feb. 5, 2014,” Middleton said. “Contributions from individual donors make up 86 percent of our campaign fundraising. In contrast, less than a quarter of our opponent’s fundraising comes from individual donors.”
Notably, although Aiken’s net worth has been estimated to between $5 million and $6 million, campaign finance reports show that he hasn’t contributed a dime of his own money to his congressional campaign.
That stands in contrast to another gay millionaire running for Congress, Sean Eldridge, who’s pursuing a bid for New York’s 19th congressional district. Eldridge, who’s married to Facebook co-founder and owner of “The New Republic” Chris Hughes, has self-funded much of his campaign. The candidate has spent nearly $1.3 million of own money on his electoral bid, according to the most campaign finance reports, which accounts for half the $3 million he’s raised.
But not all analysts share the view that Aiken has fallen short in terms of fundraising.
Thomas Mills, a political analyst and editor of PoliticsNC, said raising $700,000 for a congressional race “is nothing to sneeze at.”
“He had what was a pretty competitive primary where he spent everything he had, so he had to start over in May,” Mills said. “Having $200,000 is not doing that terribly.”
Mills predicted Aiken will raise the bulk the of his money in September and October and by the end of his campaign will likely reach close to $1.5 million.
Still, Mills acknowledged the Democratic donor base in North Carolina is more interested in re-electing Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.), who’s in a competitive race to retain her seat, instead of funding a long-shot Democratic congressional candidate.
“I think he’s running in an environment where the interest in a race like his is not that high, even though he’s an interesting candidate,” Mills said. “But I still think he’s going to have enough. If he’s sitting on $200,000 cash on hand, he raises another $500,000 or $600,000 in the last two months, he’s going to have enough to at least give this woman a run for her money. She’s going to have to spend money to save that seat.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said the Human Rights Campaign has yet to endorse Aiken. The Blade regrets the error.