Former reality show contestant Clay Aiken’s congressional race was one of the most watched in the nation last year, but none of the profiles of the candidate and his campaign or other reporting last year offered the unvarnished look at the behind-the-scenes operations that is in “The Runner Up,” a documentary series on the Esquire Network.
Aiken, a Democrat who came to fame with a second-place showing on the American Idol TV show in 2003, lost by a wide margin to incumbent Republican Rep. Renee Ellmers last fall.
But the first hour of the four-hour series, which premieres Tuesday, focuses on the Democratic primary between Aiken and businessman Keith Crisco.
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The episode shows Aiken, a first-time candidate, learning how to canvass, obsessing over his campaign signs, and assessing his staff.
Aiken was angered by a campaign ad that talked about him not showing up for meetings of a presidential commission for people with disabilities. “This is the first time I’ve ever disliked somebody,” Aiken says. “I want to beat Keith, and I don’t like that I feel that way.”
The episode is peppered with jokes between Aiken and his campaign team about Crisco’s age and how he looked to be close to death.
And then Crisco died.
Crisco died at age 71 of heart problems shortly after the primary – and the day before Aiken’s narrow, 390-vote, primary victory was confirmed.
A remorseful Aiken wished for closure. “He died before that happened,” Aiken said. “I think that’s the thing that bothers me the most.”
Aiken was a Democrat and gay man running in a conservative, Republican-leaning district against a Republican incumbent. But in interviews throughout the campaign, he insisted he could win.
He lost by more than 17 percentage points.
In a Q&A in Esquire magazine’s April issue, Aiken said he did not regret running.
“You live in a bubble when you are in a campaign,” he said. “I could be in the most conservative town in the district and walk down the street and 15 people would say, ‘Oh, my gosh, I’m a Republican, but I’m going to vote for you!’ And when this happens in these strongholds of Republicans, you think Man, I’m doing well here. I’m going to win this thing.”
The disclosure last year about the filming of the documentary ruffled the sponsor of a California fundraiser.
After the campaign, producer Steven Tyler said fundraiser attendees had been “duped, taken advantage of, and lied to,” because they were told the footage would air on the BBC, not in the United States.
Aiken addressed the controversy in a videotaped message closing the campaign, saying the documentary offered the “opportunity to bring transparency to an electoral process in desperate need of more openness.”
“Neither myself or anyone involved in the campaign had any stake in their work, nor any control over its product,” Aiken said.
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