Barry Saunders

Saunders: Are there more Claymates or Renee-mates in District 2?

At least this time, there are no brothas standing in his way.

The last two times Clay Aiken has vied for a top spot – first on “American Idol,” then on “Celebrity Apprentice” – he came in second behind Ruben Studdard and Arsenio Hall, respectively.

Should he win the Democratic primary for North Carolina’s 2nd Congressional District, Aiken’s potential election opponent could be even more formidable, considering that she would have both the advantage of incumbency and a district that was tailored to her beliefs – whatever they are.

U.S. Rep. Renee Ellmers lacks the girth and singing range of Studdard and the celebrity wattage of Hall, but she has been in office for one term. And figures from the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics show that in 2012, 90 percent of congressional incumbents were re-elected. The good news for Aiken is that that’s down from 2004, though, when 99 percent were re-elected.

Still, Ellmers undeniably appears worried that Clay may be a worthy opponent. She was, as he proudly pointed out, attacking him even when his candidacy was still a rumor.

As soon as it became official, Ellmers spokeswoman Jessica Wood took to email to call Aiken “a performer whose political views more closely resemble those of San Francisco than Sanford.”

C’mon, Jessica. That’s not even a dog-whistle: that’s a full-on “sic ’em, boy.”

Perhaps Wood can enlighten the electorate on what people in San Francisco want that people in Sanford don’t.

Oh, I get it: Clay is gay and San Francisco is hailed – and yes, demonized – for its acceptance of gay culture. Hmmm. Is Wood insinuating that there are no gays in Sanford?

I know at least one, and he’s a great guy.

Mark Twain never said, as is often attributed to him, that the coldest winter he ever spent was a summer in San Francisco. I do know, though, that I nearly froze out there in late August one year.

I’ve also spent time in Sanford, and the desires and aspirations of the residents of both cities seemed indistinguishable – jobs, affordable housing, a responsive government that works. The dude has barely dipped his toe into the political pool and already Ellmers’ camp is trying to separate the country into “them” vs. “us.”

Oy. Maybe Renee does, as Wood said, “best represent the values of the voters in the 2nd District and remains focused on fighting for their families.” If her opening re-election salvo is an attack on a political novice, though, one might conclude that she hasn’t been fighting for families as effectively as she should have been.

What Rep. Ellmers has done is vote 40 times to defund Obamacare. Had she fought for jobs for her constituents with that same ferocity and earnestness, no one would dare even enter the race against her.

Of course, among some voters, opposing anything the president stands for is reason enough to support a candidate. Ellmers is likely counting on those “Renee-mates” to offset Clay’s legendary Claymates who are eligible to vote in the 2nd District.

Policy issues notwithstanding, political science professor Liz Fournier of St. Augustine’s University said, “Personality has been an important criterion to the voters” and has been key to Ellmers’ success. “So in that case (Aiken’s) celebrity will help him,” she said.

Won’t his stand on the issues be as important as his personality and celebrity? I asked – hoping she’d say “yes.”

She didn’t. “I wish I could say ‘yes’ to that,” Fournier said, “In my classes, I always try to teach critical thinking and to emphasize how important it is to analyze candidates’ stances on issues. ... (M)y experience has been that personality often outweighs objective analysis.”


“Idol” host Ryan Seacrest once boasted – yes, boasted – on the show that more people had cast ballots for the next Idol than had voted in the then-just-passed presidential election.

“That’s great for Seacrest, but anyone who cares about democracy ... would have to cringe at that,” Fournier said, cringing.

(To vote for “Idol,” though, you don’t even have to leave your couch – and you can do it multiple times.)

Regardless of Aiken’s stand on the issues, his willingness to forgo the cushy life of a beloved celeb and get personally involved in politics is encouraging. Arsenio, Clay’s “Celebrity Apprentice” nemesis, tweeted his encouragement Wednesday: “Run Clay run!!!” Ruben, his “Idol” opponent, tweeted, “Please support my friend @clayaiken.”

Ellmers will have ample time to go after Aiken’s record, his lifestyle or anything she wants. For now, though, the statesmanlike thing to do would be to welcome him to the race and say she looks forward to debating him on the issues.

Tee-hee. I forgot for a second who I was talking about.

One detractor wrote on a website announcing Clay’s candidacy that he was unqualified, his candidacy a joke.

Qualifications? Well, let’s talk about qualifications.

Ronald Reagan, considered the patron saint of rational Republicans, was a laughably bad actor before he entered politics.

Aiken is a better singer than Reagan was an actor, and look where Ronnie Baby ended up politically.

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