Under the Dome

Morning Memo: Clay Aiken race is one to watch

In an interview with the News & Observer, former American Idol contestant Clay Aiken made his bid for Congress official. The story ( read it here) capsulizes why this is going to be a fascinating race to watch, as the Democrat recasts himself as a special education teacher and uses the education theme to undercut Republican incumbent Renee Ellmers.

So far, Aiken is off to a clean start. His campaign even convinced another Democratic primary challenger, Houston Barnes, to drop out. And unlike some congressional candidates, Aiken lives in the district, albeit in a $2 million home.

The big question remains how much money Aiken will put into the race. In the interview, he told the N&O’s Craig Jarvis that he plans to raise the “vast majority” of his money through contributions.

But one question – how his sexuality will play in the race (Aiken disclosed publicly in 2008 that he was gay) – is being quickly answered. Ellmers’ campaign hit it from the opening, saying Aiken is “a performer whose political views more closely resemble those of San Francisco than Sanford.”

***Get much more on the Aiken interview and the campaign below in the Dome Morning Memo.***

TODAY IN POLITICS: Gov. Pat McCrory traveled to Washington on Tuesday and is spending Wednesday in the nation’s capital. His public schedule lists just one event: the inaugural meeting of a National Association of Manufacturing task force at 11:30 a.m. But AP reports McCrory will also meet with Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz to follow up on a brief meeting the governor had with Obama when he came to Raleigh last month. McCrory wants to push for drilling off the North Carolina coast.

At the legislative building, a task force looking at fraud against older adults will meet at 10 a.m. Two more committees will meet at the same time in the legislative office building: a revenue laws subcommittee and a joint oversight committee on unemployment insurance.

WHY HE’S RUNNING: “I saw this as the best place I could serve, because I think Washington, in general, is dysfunctional,” Aiken said. “I think it’s high time we put people in Congress who were not beholden to their party, and not beholden to anything but the people who they live around and grew up around, in my case.”

WHY HE SEES ELLMERS AS VULNERABLE: Aiken, 35, said jobs and the economy will be important campaign themes; specifically, emphasizing education as a way to get people back to work, including through adult job retraining programs.

He said he would press Ellmers to explain her voting record that cut funding for military families. “She didn’t have to run on her record last time,” Aiken said. “I plan on changing that. I want her to have to talk about and defend some of the things she’s done to people in this district.”

RESPONDING TO ELLMERS’ IDOL REMARKS: Ellmers responded directly to a potential Aiken campaign recently on a radio program, mocking the performer for failing to win American Idol.

Aiken responded: “I will say it’s pretty sad that I didn’t even get a chance to get into the race before the mud started being thrown around,” Aiken said. “That’s not the kind of campaign I’m going to run. Maybe I should be flattered that she’s worried enough she thinks she needs to stomp me down.”

Read the full story here. And see a video of Aiken here.

MORE 2ND DISTRICT -- DEMOCRATIC PRIMARY MONEY RACE: Houston Barnes, who is dropping out of the race to support Aiken, had the best track record raising money in the fourth-quarter: Almost half of his receipts came from individual donors, a total of $31,000. Contrasted with only a sliver of individual donors contributing to Keith Crisco.

Crisco’s approximately $100,000 total receipts was mostly due to a $95,000 loan to himself. Barnes loaned his own campaign $20,000, bringing the total receipts to about $63,000.

Toni Morris, a Fayetteville counselor who lost in the last 2nd District primary, has filed no campaign report yet.

Barnes tells Dome that he wasn’t scared off by the Aiken candidacy. In fact, he says, his fundraising is what brought the Aiken camp to his door asking him to step aside this time around.

Barnes says he got to know Aiken over the past few weeks, and readily agreed.

Strangely, the Crisco campaign was absolutely silent on Tuesday.

THE BIG STORY -- DUKE ENERGY COAL ASH SPILL BLACKENS RIVER: EDEN — Dump trucks and backhoes filed into Duke Energy’s Dan River power plant Tuesday as officials worked to plug a leaking storage pond that dumped enough coal ash into the river to fill 20 Olympic swimming pools.

Pond water continued to leak from a 48-inch stormwater pipe that broke Sunday, washing at least 50,000 tons of ash carried by 24 million gallons of water into the Dan. Coal ash contains metals that can be toxic at high concentrations.

Engineers and contractors searched for a permanent way to fix the break before turning their attention to a cleanup. It’s not clear why the reinforced concrete pipeline broke. Built in the 1960s, it runs beneath the unlined ash pond – the only one of Duke’s 14 North Carolina ash ponds with such a pipe beneath it. A power plant in Indiana also has a pipe under its ash pond.

DENR SAYS WATER IS SAFE TO DRINK: Initial water samples taken from the river near the power plant found normal readings for dissolved oxygen, pH, and other factors, said the N.C. Department of Environment and natural resources. But results for heavy metals, which are of more concern because they are potentially toxic, won’t be back until Wednesday or Thursday.

John Skvarla, North Carolina’s environment secretary, and Duke said downstream water that is treated by municipalities is safe to drink.

PUBLIC NOTICE TOOK A DAY: Duke said a security guard spotted the breach at about 2 p.m. Sunday. Emergency officials downstream were alerted, it said, just before the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources was called at about 6:30 p.m. Duke sent out a press release about the spill at 4 p.m. Monday. Read more here.

#NCSEN ---

A HEADLINE TILLIS WON’T LIKE -- NC conservatives wonder: Where’s Tillis? From The Hill -- Conservatives in North Carolina want to know where Thom Tillis is.

The Republican front-runner to face Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) has been ducking the GOP base, subsequently angering some conservative activists whose support he’ll need to win a crowded primary election to even face the Democrat this fall. Read more here.

HAGAN RESPONDS TO ATTACK ADS: “The big agenda that people need to be asking is, who is it who’s funding these ads and what is their real agenda?” she said, adding that their agenda includes tax cuts for the wealthy.

Hagan’s comments came during a conference call with reporters to announce her sponsorship with Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski of a new sportsman’s bill. Among other things, the measure would open more public lands to hunters.

Hagan declined to specifically answer a question about how much she believes the president and his heath care initiative are hurting her re-election campaign. Read more here.

HAGAN’S GOP RIVALS OPPOSE FARM BILL: North Carolina’s two U.S. senators split on Tuesday’s nearly $1 trillion farm bill, with Democrat Kay Hagan voting for it and Republican Richard Burr against.

Add Hagan’s GOP opponents to the “no” column. The bill passed 68-32 with bi-partisan support. Its passage was applauded by Larry Wooten, president of the North Carolina Farm Bureau. But Republican Senate candidates don’t like the bill. Read more here.

REPORTS MEANS MORE HEALTH CARE HEADACHES FOR HAGAN: Several million American workers will cut back their hours on the job or leave the nation’s workforce entirely because of President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul, congressional analysts said Tuesday, adding fresh fuel to the political fight over “Obamacare.”

The workforce changes would mean nationwide losses equal to 2.3 million full-time jobs by 2021, in large part because people would opt to keep their income low to stay eligible for federal health care subsidies or Medicaid, the Congressional Budget Office said. It had estimated previously that the law would lead to 800,000 fewer jobs by that year. Read more here.

ADDENDUM TO BRANNON LAWSUIT: Erick Erickson at RedState was among the first to recognize Greg Brannon’s campaign for U.S. Senate. But Tuesday he tweeted a link to the story about Brannon’s lawsuit troubles and added, “This could consolidate the anti-Tillis factions into Mark Harris’s camp.”

#NCPOL ---

VIRGINIA GAY MARRIAGE CASE MEANS BIG THINGS FOR NORTH CAROLINA: From the New York Times -- Virginia’s ban on same-sex marriage was challenged in federal court on Tuesday in the first serious legal test of the restrictive marriage amendments that blanket the South.

The challenge to Virginia’s ban, which was adopted by referendum in 2006, was argued by the same bipartisan team of legal stars, Theodore B. Olson and David Boies, that successfully contested California’s ban in 2010.

In a rare scene, they were joined in the courtroom in Norfolk, Va., by the new Democratic attorney general of Virginia, Mark Herring, who announced two weeks ago that his office considered the marriage ban unconstitutional and would assist the challenge. Read more here.

WHAT’S HAPPENING IN MEL WATT’S VACANT OFFICE: Now, put in a call to Watt’s office and the phone is answered generically: “Office of the 12th Congressional District.”

Staffers in both his Washington and North Carolina offices have remained behind, including chief of staff Danielle Owen. She leads Watt’s old team helping constituents with federal needs and answering questions about pending legislation or scheduling tours of the Capitol. But what exactly is happening in the office is unclear. The Office of the Clerk of the House has ordered Owen and other staffers not to answer questions about any calls they are receiving or any staff changes that might be contemplated. Read more here.

KEN SPAULDING’S EARLY START FOR GOVERNOR: From columnist Rob Christensen --Nearly three years before the 2016 North Carolina governor’s election, Spaulding has been on the campaign trail for months, has printed up campaign literature, and has a campaign office in a suburban office park.

Spaulding figures he needs a running start if he going to become the state’s first African-American governor. Many in the Democratic Party have already anointed Attorney General Roy Cooper as the next Democratic nominee. And whoever is the Democratic nominee, will have to face a sitting governor, Republican Pat McCrory. ...

“I don’t believe in running just to run,” Spaulding said. “I believe in running to win. I always try to outwork my adversaries in work or track or whatever. I am not afraid of taking the time to get out with the voters and basically upset the establishment.” Read more here.

REV. BARBER SOUNDS OFF AGAIN: From the Washington Post -- An NAACP leader in North Carolina said Tuesday that the tea party is actively seeking out minorities to use as “mouthpieces.”

“They frantically seek out people of color to become mouthpieces for their particular agenda,” the Rev. William Barber said on a conference call.

Barber, the head of the North Carolina NAACP, recently caused controversy by comparing Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), the lone black Republican in Congress, to a ventriloquist’s dummy at an event in South Carolina last month. Read more here.

N.C. DEMOCRATIC PARTY ENDORSES MARCH ON RALEIGH: The state Democratic Party has joined the bandwagon behind a march on Raleigh scheduled for Saturday. It is led by the N.C. NAACP’s Rev. William Barber and other liberal organizations. The party’s endorsement adds a greater political tinge to an event already dosed in partisanship. “Since 2006, HKonJ has served as an important reminder as to what matters most to the people of North Carolina: economic prosperity for our working and middle class families, quality public education for our children and access to voting for all North Carolinians,” said Randy Voller, the state Democratic Party chairman in a statement. “This Saturday promises to be a people’s assembly like no other in response to the fringe policies championed by Pat McCrory, Thom Tillis and the out of touch members of the GOP-led General Assembly.”

Republicans responded in kind: “The NCDP has officially endorsed Rev. William Barber and his fringe liberal agenda to fully implement Obamacare, raise taxes, and take us back to the days of double-digit unemployment,” said Republican Party Executive Director Todd Poole said in a statement. “It confirms what we already knew – Saturday’s so-called ‘moral march’ on Raleigh is nothing more than partisan rally for the far-left fringe of the Democrat Party. Meanwhile, Kay Hagan and Roy Cooper continue their silence. Do they agree or not with Rev. William Barber’s far-left agenda and his offensive and outrageous rhetoric directed at his political opponents?”

MORE TROUBLES FOR DHHS: North Carolina’s new Medicaid billing system is down for doctors, hospitals and other medical providers.

The outside vendor that built and operates the NC Tracks system said it went offline shortly after 8 a.m. Tuesday. It was still down Tuesday evening. A Computer Sciences Corp. spokeswoman didn’t have an estimate on when providers could again access the portal. Read more here.

PERSONNEL FILE: Democrat Kay Hagan has hired Justin Myers as deputy campaign manager for her contested re-election bid. Myers previously served as executive director of the New Jersey Democratic Party.


Raleigh picked as one of nation’s 7 climate change hubs. Read more here.

Asheville, Wilmington on MovieMaker’s best places list. Read more here.

How would Richard Burr’s Obamacare alternative affect you? Read more here.