Clay Aiken’s announcement Wednesday that he wants to be a congressman from North Carolina drew the expected national attention and mixed reactions.
Some expressed skepticism that the entertainer is substantial or conservative enough to carry the 2nd Congressional District. Others welcomed his entry into the Democratic primary and speculated he could defeat U.S. Rep. Renee Ellmers, the Republican incumbent from Dunn.
Among those who broadcast their support for him on Twitter was Arsenio Hall, who tweeted: “Run Clay Run!!!” And 2003 “American Idol” winner Ruben Studdard, tweeted “Please support my friend.” Aiken was a runner-up to Studdard, but the show launched his successful career as a singer.
Then there was the less enthusiastic “Now I’ve seen everything,” from a man in Illinois.
Meanwhile, the national news media glare intensified.
Aiken, 35, spent the day Wednesday doing interviews, including an extended segment on CNN, where he said President Barack Obama could do a better job resolving the “dysfunction” in Washington. “He is not immune” from the criticism, Aiken said.
A New York Times reporter was quick to post a list of five questions Aiken might face on the campaign trail. They ranged from what he thinks of the Trans-Pacific Strategic Economic Partnership and its impact on North Carolina manufacturing, to whether it’s harder to place in a national singing contest or to pass meaningful legislation in Congress.
The N.C. Republican Party wants to know what he thinks about gun control and abortion.
“The residents of North Carolina’s 2nd District have no clue where Aiken stands on important issues and whether he’s going to be an automatic vote for President Obama and Nancy Pelosi’s liberal agenda,” GOP spokesman Daniel Keylin said in a news release.
Aiken’s campaign spokesman, Karl Frisch, responded:
“The GOP’s press release looks like it walked out of central casting for ‘politics as usual.’ Clay’s announcement video and subsequent media interviews begin his conversation about the problems 2nd District families face, the role the incumbent has played in exacerbating those problems, and the solutions he’ll seek in Washington. While we appreciate their interest in how Clay should conduct his campaign, they’ve not proven themselves to be particularly good stewards of the 2nd District, so we’ll have to pass.”
But those questions will persist in the battleground that is the weirdly lopsided U-shaped district that Republicans redrew in 2011.
The Washington Post’s Aaron Blake blogged that only three House Democrats represent districts that are more Republican than Ellmers’ district. Two of them – Rep. Mike McIntyre of North Carolina and Rep. Jim Matheson of Utah – are retiring. The third, Rep. Nick Rahall of West Virginia, is in a tight race despite having been in office for decades.
Mitt Romney won almost 60 percent of the vote in that district in 2012, according to an analysis by the N.C. Chamber. The election saw easy margins of victory by several statewide Republican candidates.
The worst-performing GOP candidate in that election, unsuccessful state schools superintendent candidate John Tedesco, still won that district with 51.4 percent of the vote.
“I have no doubt Clay Aiken will have all the money he needs to run an effective campaign. And his ‘I’m not a politician’ message is the right one for this political environment,” the Chamber’s Nathan Babcock said. “But even the strongest Democratic candidate faces a steep uphill climb in the 2nd Congressional District.”
Yet David Wasserman, an analyst of U.S. House races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, said in an interview Wednesday that Aiken livens up the race, which could test whether elections have become entirely partisan.
“If a candidate as likeable and as backed by as much star power as Clay Aiken cannot win in this solidly Republican seat, who can?” Wasserman said. “Clay Aiken’s records have sold well in areas like the 2nd District, but the Republicans’ ability to draw the map prior to 2012 is a much more daunting factor in this race.”
Aiken will still face a strong opponent in the May primary election. Former state Commerce Secretary Keith Crisco said he will remain in the race.
Another candidate, Durham lawyer Houston Barnes, agreed to step aside and support Aiken. In October, Barnes became the first candidate to announce. In three months, he raised half of his $63,000 campaign fund from more than 200 individual donors.
Crisco, 70, started a war chest at the end of last year with a $95,000 loan to himself, with few contributions so far. Toni Morris, a Fayetteville counselor, is also running but has yet to file a finance report. The filing period to run begins Monday.
“I look forward to a vigorous discussion about who is the most qualified person to represent the people of the second district and win in November,” Crisco, an Asheboro businessman, said in a statement.
Despite Crisco’s longtime political connections as a member of former Gov. Bev Perdue’s Cabinet, some of the Democratic mainstays appear to be lining up behind Aiken. That includes former Transportation Secretary Gene Conti, who is treasurer for Aiken’s federal campaign committee, Clay Aiken for North Carolina. Renee Schoof of the McClatchy D.C. bureau contributed.
Jarvis: 919-829-4576; Twitter: @CraigJ_NandO