Clay Aiken is sitting in the back of a small wine shop surrounded by women, talking about constituent services.
He reels off the names of North Carolina politicians whom, he says, excel at it: Reps. Walter Jones and Howard Coble, Sen. Richard Burr – Republicans all. But the late Jesse Helms was best, he says.
The Democrat and former “American Idol” contestant is emphasizing pragmatism over politics and district interests over partisanship as he runs for Congress in the 2nd District against two-term incumbent U.S. Rep. Renee Ellmers, a Republican from Dunn.
On this day, he’s meeting with military spouses – some of whom are not even eligible to vote for him. Aiken, dressed casually in a green shirt opened at the collar, mostly listens. But when he talks, he demonstrates his knowledge of national issues affecting the district including defense spending and sequestration, the automatic budget cut of 2013.
An analyst with the nonpartisan Cook Political Report wrote a glowing assessment of Aiken’s political acumen before the May primary saying, “He spoke passionately and fluently on a range of issues, from trade promotion authority to No Child Left Behind to continuous coverage provisions of the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate.”
Despite that assessment, the Cook Report now has the district in the “strong Republican” category.
That the lopsided U-shaped district was cobbled together to make it easier for a Republican candidate to win is not lost on Aiken.
Several times during the roundtable with the military spouses, Aiken notes that the legislature abandoned the idea of keeping communities of interest together when it created congressional districts. Instead the 2nd District’s representative must keep in mind the needs of the Wake County suburbs, the military interests of Cumberland, and the agricultural and manufacturing interests of counties to the west of Asheboro.
Celebrity not enough
It has been 11 years since Aiken, who grew up in Raleigh and attended Leesville High School, came in second on “American Idol.” Since then there have been best-selling albums, an appearance on Broadway in “Spamalot,” a stint on “Celebrity Apprentice” and guest spots on other shows.
His celebrity status has drawn attention attention to the race. He had a pre-primary appearance on “The Colbert Report,” and a British documentary film crew is following the race. He’s backed by people well-known in Democratic circles, including former Ambassador Jeanette Hyde of Raleigh and former state Transportation Secretary Gene Conti.
But political analysts say the odds are against him in the conservative district.
In 2008 and 2012, when Barack Obama’s voter turnout machine was going full-blast, the 2nd District overwhelmingly chose the Republican presidential ticket.
In 2008, when Obama narrowly won the state, voters in the district chose Republican candidate John McCain by more than 11 percentage points. Republican Mitt Romney won the district two years ago by more than 15 percentage points but had a much narrower statewide win, carrying North Carolina 50 percent to 48 percent.
Joe Stewart, executive director of the N.C. FreeEnterprise Foundation, a nonpartisan group that does political research and analysis, said Aiken had three problems:
• His name recognition doesn’t seem to be giving him an advantage, as evidenced in his small, 1.4 percentage-point margin of victory in the primary.
• So far, he hasn’t raised the kind of money needed to finance a massive ad campaign.
Though Aiken has held fundraisers in the last few months, the most recent finance reports from June show he had raised $679,218 and had about $202,000 in the bank.
Ellmers had raised $1.3 million and had about $405,000 in hand, according to the latest report.
• The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee does not have the race on its target list for special attention and money, an indication that Democratic strategists have figured Ellmers is likely to win.
“These districts are drawn in such a way that the party out of favor in that district has very little chance of winning,” said John Davis, a Raleigh political analyst. “There’s really nothing that Ellmers has done that’s so terrible that she’s not going to get all those Republican votes.”
Greg Martin, an unaffiliated voter from Cary, said that he plans to vote for Aiken but that he doubted the Democrat could win.
“There is enough bias that Clay Aiken probably won’t be elected,” Martin said as he left a Cary bakery last week. “The fact that he’s openly gay will preclude a lot of voters from voting for him.”
Aiken came out in September 2008, in a People Magazine article, after fathering a child with a close friend in the music industry.
Martin, 60, said he’ll vote for Aiken because “he’s not a Republican. I don’t care what his sexual preferences are.”
Opportunity in unaffiliated voters
Aiken has a different assessment of his chances. The Democratic candidate who challenged Ellmers two years ago came close to winning Cumberland County though he had little campaign money, Aiken said.
Ellmers’ 2012 challenger, Steve Wilkins, was a retired military officer with the Special Forces who won 17 of 42 precincts in Cumberland, doing well in areas close to Fort Bragg.
Aiken also sees opportunities in voter-rich Wake, and in the more rural counties where more voters are registering as unaffiliated. More than 29 percent of voters in the district are unaffiliated, people who don’t pick candidates by party label, he said.
Critical of Ellmers
Aiken knows his celebrity status brings out the curious and the fans to his campaign stops.
But he talks about his background in education – he was a special education major at UNC Charlotte and worked with autistic children before “Idol” – more than he does his singing career. He smiles slightly – but doesn’t respond – when someone suggests he give a concert.
“I’ve said to folks, ‘When I get to Congress, my job is going to be to come listen to you and represent you and speak for the needs that you have. If I haven’t done more for you than Renee Ellmers has done in the last four, then don’t vote for me next time. Vote me out.’ ”
Aiken says Ellmers is more interested in holding leadership roles than in the district’s well-being. Specifically, he faults Ellmers for voting for a sequester-level budget early last year, and said she did not act swiftly to stop deactivation of the 440th Airlift Wing at Fort Bragg, a move Fayetteville officials say would be a harsh blow to the local economy.
“If you are the congresswoman whose responsibility is to the 2nd District, that is all your responsibility is. Full stop. And it is not to anywhere else in the country,” Aiken said.
Ellmers focused on women
Ellmers said Aiken was wrong and that she worked to keep the 440th Airlift Wing at Fort Bragg along with the rest of the delegation.
“I don’t think Mr. Aiken has any proof to back up his claims,” she said.
Ellmers said she is focusing on women’s issues in her campaign, including job creation and health care. Ellmers won her first race focusing on her opposition to the Affordable Care Act, or as she calls it Obamacare.
That’s still the No. 1 issue, she said. Cuts in Medicare home health funding hit women particularly hard, Ellmers said.
In a recent interview with Larry King, Ellmers said Congress is “more than just a game show.”
“Well you know I think he is a very talented individual,” she said. “I think God has blessed him with a beautiful voice. He is an entertainer. But you know serving the people of District 2 North Carolina is more than just a game show. And you have to show up and you have to be accountable. And that’s what I’m trying to do for the people of District 2.”
Aiken won the appreciation of the military wives and girlfriends who turned out to tell him about the challenges their families face.
“I find your respect for opposing parties and candidates – I find that kind of refreshing,” said Rachel Hsiao, 31, of Lillington. Hsiao, a lawyer, moved to North Carolina from California recently to be with her boyfriend.
“So many politicians are big talkers,” she said. “They talk about grass roots. Rarely do they come into the community.”
Hsiao and several others who had extensive exchanges with Aiken aren’t registered to vote in North Carolina.
Aiken said it didn’t matter – that the point was to learn about issues, not stump for votes. The families are residents who need representation, he said, no matter where the adults are registered.