It’s a lopsided U of a district that has candidates posing for selfies in a frozen yogurt bar in Asheboro, meeting in a steakhouse in Southern Pines, swinging by a Salvation Army store in Fayetteville, touring a factory in Dunn, showing up at a Baptist church in Fuquay-Varina or a sandwich shop in Cary.
Covering all or parts of nine counties, the 2nd Congressional District, if nothing else, is a cross-section of the old and the new in North Carolina – fitting, in a way, for the main two contenders in the Democratic primary.
One, Keith Crisco, 70, is firmly in the tradition of North Carolina’s pro-business Democrats. Raised on a farm, he became a successful businessman and local politician before being named the state’s commerce secretary under Gov. Bev Perdue.
The other, Clay Aiken, 35, is also a native North Carolinian, a special education teacher who became rich and famous as a pop singer and has returned home as a philanthropist and candidate for federal office.
Both men – along with Toni Morris, a Fayetteville counselor who has not campaigned as extensively nor reported raising any money yet – hope to be the nominee to challenge U.S. Rep. Renee Ellmers, a Republican from Dunn, in the November general election.
Over the past two months leading up to the primary election, Aiken and Crisco have spent long hours on the road, passing each other at events as they gauge their chances in the squiggly 2nd District.
“You call it a district, and I call it a science project,” Crisco said in a recent interview, referring to its amorphous shape. “It’s really an accumulation of a lot of small towns with quite different objectives. Pinehurst is different than Dunn, and Fayetteville is certainly different than Asheboro in demographics, in industrial profile. It’s a wonderful district. It is a profile of the state.”
It’s also a district that the Republican-led General Assembly drew to make it as safe as possible for GOP candidates in 2012. Mitt Romney won almost 60 percent of the vote there in 2012, an election year that saw easy margins of victory by most statewide Republican candidates. Ellmers is favored to defeat primary challenger Frank Roche of Cary and win re-election.
“I think I know why they drew these lines the way they did,” Aiken said in an interview last week. “But if you think about the fact that House districts are supposed to be small so that everyone has the same interests, everyone has the same needs, that’s certainly not the case in this district. So the congressperson representing the district really has to be present a lot more. There are a lot of different viewpoints and a lot of different needs in the district.”
Andy Taylor, a political science professor at N.C. State University, says Ellmers appears safe, although she could be harmed if there is a backlash against the Republican legislature. Yet, he said, that kind of sentiment would be more likely in urban areas, and there isn’t much of that in the 2nd district.
“But it’s a pretty interesting Democratic primary despite that,” Taylor said. “Normally, when it’s going to be difficult for a candidate to win a race, the primary is subdued because the value of the nomination isn’t seen as particularly high. In this case it’s between an experienced and fairly well-known political official, and a politically inexperienced but very, very well-known newcomer to politics.”
Candidates in a Democratic primary also have to do well with African-American voters, Taylor said. While there are fewer of them in the 2nd district, they might be typically conservative rural dwellers, he said, particularly on social issues. Aiken is openly gay and seen as part of the entertainment industry.
“It will be interesting to see how that plays out for Aiken,” Taylor said. “I’m not sure it’s a negative, but it might be.”
The fame factor
For Aiken, being famous is both an advantage and a liability.
“You may recognize me from my guest appearance on ‘30 Rock,’ ” Aiken told the several dozen party loyalists gathered last week at the Pittsboro Roadhouse for a forum sponsored by the Lee and Chatham Democrats, who mostly reacted with silence.
“That was a joke,” he added.
Aiken’s joke was part modesty – his fame went far beyond a single TV appearance, after the “American Idol” runner-up went on to a recording and Broadway career. It was also his way of acknowledging that people know him because he was an entertainer, not because he has proven himself in politics.
More often than not, the people he meets on the campaign trail are excited by his celebrity and enthusiastic to pose with him for photographs. But, he said, people also want to talk about their concerns.
“I’m perfectly open to the fact that a lot of the enthusiasm is because they’ve seen me on TV before,” Aiken said. “But once I get past that initial reaction from folks, it’s been really good.
“I mean, people are tired of the same things I’m tired of. So having the name recognition, having them want to take a picture with me, that works. It’s not going to get me elected, and it shouldn’t. But it gets me in the room and it gets people talking about issues.”
What Aiken hopes will get him elected are independent beliefs built around the idea that Democrats don’t have all the answers and Republicans aren’t all wrong. Government has a role, but sometimes he sees it as more limited than traditional Democrats do.
Asked at the Pittsboro Democratic event what he would do to redistribute wealth, Aiken had a firm answer: “I don’t want to redistribute anyone’s wealth. I want to make it possible to move from lower class to middle class to upper class.” But, he said, that takes government investment in jobs.
“History shows trickle-down doesn’t work,” he said. “I believe in trickle-up.”
He’s proud of the fact that he spent an hour with the nonpartisan Cook Report in Washington, D.C. earlier this month, which prompted the publication to hedge its prediction that Ellmers is the odds-on favorite.
“Over the years, the Cook Political Report has interviewed hundreds if not thousands of congressional candidates, and it’s easy to enter some of these meetings with preconceived notions of how people might act or think given their backgrounds,” Cook’s David Wasserman wrote. “But Aiken took us by surprise, quickly washing away any notion he’s another superficial, stage-managed Hollywood star dabbling into politics as a new hobby.”
Crisco tried out his own Hollywood line at the Pittsboro event, when asked how he would work across party lines.
“Talk about relationships,” he said, “Kevin Bacon has nothing on me.”
The reference to the pop culture game of seeing how many actors can be tied to Bacon was meant to emphasize Crisco’s work as commerce secretary making connections with businesses across the state and nation. He says he is on a first-name basis with half the consultants in the country who can deliver jobs.
Crisco’s joke didn’t get any better reception than Aiken’s, but that’s about all they have in common when it comes to public speaking. Where Aiken is animated, funny and articulate, Crisco is slow, quiet and authoritative.
Crisco is in a position to emphasize the topic that seems to be uppermost on voters’ minds – jobs – having started his own textile business and then serving as commerce secretary and on local economic stimulus enterprises.
“I was well known in the business community,” he said. “I was not as well known, perhaps, in the everyday. So we got our name out, and been received well, emphasizing my experience. I can hit the ground running. I’m a guy who understands some of the history. I’ve done things. I have a background that can be productive in Washington.”
He has accumulated a long list of endorsements from business and political leaders in the Triad, along with much of Perdue’s old cabinet.
At all his campaign stops, Crisco says his experience makes him far more qualified to be in Congress than Ellmers.
“It’s not an entry-level job,” he says. “She got in on a quirk.”
Adding up the votes
Beating Ellmers is the whole point, of course, and everyone agrees that will be hard to do.
“There is still residual discontent, particularly in the tea party wing, with Ellmers,” professor Taylor said. “If (House Speaker Thom) Tillis is the nominee in the Senate and has problems, she might get connected to him. It’s not impossible, obviously, but it’s not going to be easy.”
Crisco says he’s figured out the math that shows how he can win, and it goes like this:
Ellmers received more votes in Randolph than in any other county, winning 70 percent of the vote there. That’s where Crisco has lived for 36 years, raised a family, served on the school board and city council. He says he can win over the business community. If he can swing over those conservative and independent voters, his thinking goes, he can beat the incumbent.
“That’s my advantage,” Crisco said. “My opponents are good candidates. They are attractive candidates. But I don’t think they have the broad-based support of the many, many sub groups that I would, and that’s the difference. That’s how you win. At the end of the day, it’s the most votes.”
Aiken adds votes up differently. He notes that the portions of six counties that are in the current district voted for a Democrat for Congress in the 2008 general election. And since then, he says, conservatives have become dissatisfied with Ellmers. That’s certainly the signal sent by the candidacy of Roche, who has attacked her from the right.
“This district is not as red as some folks would like you to believe,” Aiken said. “Republicans are up for grabs, but we need the turnout.”
Aiken’s campaign is using a risky strategy to get those voters out. As of the middle of this month, he hadn’t bought any TV ads or put up signs. His strategists say he already has “near universal” name recognition, and so they have been holding off on commercials, possibly waiting until the final days.
Crisco, meanwhile, has spent many tens of thousands of dollars for both signs and three rounds of TV ads. Crisco has raised almost $450,000, but that includes a $247,000 loan to himself. Aiken is also raising money but trails Crisco by about $233,000 in the first three months of the year.
“I’ve always said I’m not going to throw a lot of money into this because I’m not trying to buy a seat,” Aiken said. “If what I’m saying doesn’t engage people enough to want to help, then I’m probably not representing them anyway, right?”
Taylor said there’s a danger in not raising a lot of money, other than not having enough of it to spend on campaigning: It makes it seem like the candidate isn’t serious.
“Whether that impression is accurate or not, by not doing very much (fundraising) it just reinforces it,” Taylor said.