Clay Aiken Wants Your Vote Again
One morning last fall, Clay Aiken was lounging in bed in his mansion in Durham, North Carolina, reading the news off his phone, when he came across something that made him sit up and say, “Are you”– he mouths the f-word – “kidding me?” The government shutdown was in effect, and Aiken’s congresswoman, Republican Renee Ellmers, had not-so-graciously declined to decline her paycheck, explaining that while she had voted for the shutdown that was depriving hundreds of thousands of their livelihood, she, you know, actually needed the money.
In a fit of indignation, Aiken, former American Idol runner-up and crooner extraordinaire, decided enough was enough. For more than six months, party leaders had been trying to get him to challenge Ellmers, a tough task in an overwhelmingly red district. “People recognized that it couldn’t just be a normal politician up against her,” he says. “We needed somebody who was going to get people to pay attention.’ ‘Now it was time to give it a go.
Roughly a year later, he’s thusly groomed (beige-y jacket, Ken-doll hair, too-white teeth and Willie Stark drawl) and hot (quite literally) on the campaign trail. He’s racing in, late and sweaty, to a Moore County Democratic Party luncheon at the tony Pinehurst country club, where the accents trickle, the iced tea flows, and Aiken sneaks out as soon as the speeches are over. Once in a booth at El -Vaquero Mexican Restaurant – in the same building where, as a kid, he’d played Rolfe in a community-theater production of The Sound of Music – Aiken says he’s trying to do fewer events that feel like pep rallies for the party. “Our common opponent is idiots. And they’re not always in the GOP, are they?”
“Getting kicked around and having people talk crap about me? Man, I’m a pro at that.”
It may defy credulity that the goofy kid who belted his way into America’s collective affection on Idol should now envision himself a congressman – a case of cognitive dissonance he refers to as the What the Heck Mountain (as in “What the heck is that guy doing running for office?”). But that 24-year-old underdog is now a dapper 35-year-old, buttoned up literally and figuratively, and as surprised at where he has found himself as the rest of us are. “I always liked politics, but I never wanted to run for office, necessarily.” Aiken pauses to reflect. “I did play Clinton in my eighth-grade class debate.”
And he’s still an underdog, a gay Democrat running in a district that voted in favor of an amendment to the state constitution banning same-sex marriage. The race may be unwinnable. Two years ago, Ellmers’ distinguished challenger, retired Army Lt. Col. Steve Wilkins, lost by 14 points. Aiken may be narrowing the gap – a recent conservative poll has him trailing by eight percent – but polling-data aggregator Real Clear Politics predicts an Ellmers victory.
“It’s an uphill battle,” concedes Randy Voller, chairman of the North Carolina Democratic Party. In 2011, the district was redrawn to favor a Republican candidate. That year, political website The Hill placed Ellmers second on a list of “House Members Most Helped by Redistricting.” “If you look at the aggregate vote in 2012, Democrats got 51 percent,” Voller says. “But we only won four congressional seats. The Republicans got nine. With [gerrymandering], you can redraw districts that split through the bedroom pretty much.”
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