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."
So when approached in 2013 by, among others, Gene Conti, former secretary of the North Carolina Department of Transportation, Aiken's first response was "Ha-ha, no!" But the wooing persisted. "They plied me with information about how the district had been blue in the past – there were a lot of yellow dogs in the area – but because of Obamacare, they started voting Republican," Aiken says. "Now a lot of them are starting to realize, ‘Whoops, we voted against our own best interest.'"
In a lot of ways, Aiken is as squeaky-clean as any party could hope for. He doesn't smoke. He rarely drinks. He doesn't actually say curse words but rather mouths them dramatically. And the worst thing he's ever done, he says, is to "steal" the car his parents were planning to give him, from their driveway, and take it for a joy ride, with only a learner's permit ("My stepfather saw the car was missing and, lo and behold, there it was in the parking lot of the Little Caesars right around the corner from the house. Oh, I got a heck of a spanking!"). Of running for office, Aiken is quick to point out that "you have to raise a lot of money and expect to get people talking crap about you. Well, I didn't have to buy name recognition. And getting kicked around the block and having people talk crap about me? Man, I'm a pro at that."
Still, he entered the race with a good dose of apprehension. "In the entertainment business, you need as broad a base of audience as you can get. If you go into politics – pfft – cut it in half. So come November 5th, I will be in Congress or I will be looking for a different job than I've had the last 11 years." It's possible Aiken would have been looking for another job anyway: Whereas his 2003 debut album sold 2.8 million copies, his most recent, 2012's Steadfast, sold 12,000. He jeopardized his fan base when he came out in 2008, the year he had a son with music producer Jaymes Foster, via in vitro fertilization (the two share custody, but don't live together). At that time, Aiken has estimated, up to 10 percent of his Claymates defected.
But the personal history Aiken revealed shortly after his Idol stint – escaping an abusive dad, and the kindness his mom received to help get back on her feet – underscores his message of fairness and opportunity, as does his past as a teacher of special-needs kids. "What I recognize the government has a role and ability to do, and should do, is make sure that every-one at least starts from equal footing," he'd told the fancy folks at the luncheon.
In preparation for a year on the campaign trail without a salary, Aiken sold his mansion at a loss, moved into a rental and called Donald Trump, whom he got to know while competing on The Celebrity Apprentice (again, he was runner-up), to see how influential right-wingers might react. "I don't agree with [Trump] politically on a lot of things," Aiken says. "But you don't become as successful as he has without knowing how to work with people you don't agree with." Of Aiken's run, the Donald did not disapprove.
So now Aiken is avoiding the chips and salsa and discussing his three unassailable talking points (education, veterans' rights and job creation) while imploring his very young and very amused -communications director to scratch his back with a fork: "Tucker, I may have to take this fork with me – or they'll have to wash it twice!"
When it comes to the issues, Aiken backs up his fairly moderate stance by arguing that he wants to tackle legislation that actually has a shot at getting bipartisan support. And he hasn't been afraid to critique President Obama for overreaching on surveillance and for granting too much weight to high-stakes standardized tests. He has not made gay rights a part of his platform, as, he says, it's not an issue that affects the majority of his would-be constituents, many of whom work at Fort Bragg, the biggest military base in the world.
His earnestness, a defining feature of his TV days, is ever present, especially when he heads to a literacy event in one of the poorest parts of his district. Here he lingers, posing for selfies with kids while joking, "I gotta take the picture from above! Down here you see all my chins!"
Which makes him a hell of a lot more likable than Ellmers, who recently informed her colleagues in the House that they should stop with the pie charts and graphs already and "bring it down to a woman's level."She voted more than 40 times to repeal or weaken Obamacare.
Though desperate to unseat Ellmers, Aiken has refused to do the number one thing that some, including Voller, believe could help him win: sing on the stump. "No one is dumb enough to say that I would be running for Congress if I hadn't been on Idol," he says. "But I don't need to reinforce that." Instead, what he wants to reinforce is his knowledge of and love for his home state. "People say to me, ‘Why don't you live in New York? How can you live in the South?' Well, you can kiss it. I love it here. And I refuse to let someone represent my home and embarrass the heck out of us nationally."