Singer Clay Aiken has been exploring a bid for Congress, but history suggests he may face an uphill battle if he runs.
Recent reports say the former "American Idol" star has been laying the groundwork to run for the House of Representatives this year. Aiken reportedly has already met with Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee leaders and is currently hiring campaign staff to prepare a run against Rep. Renee Ellmers (R) in North Carolina’s 2nd Congressional District.
But while a run against Ellmers would garner national and increased media attention, the numbers alone are not encouraging for Aiken, a registered Democrat. Although no polls conducted in the district thus far have included him as a candidate, the area's voting history does not bode well for a Democratic challenger.
The district, which encompasses part of the Raleigh suburbs as well as a swath of the central and eastern parts of the state, voted for John McCain over President Barack Obama in 2008 by a 13-point margin. In 2010, Ellmers won her seat from a Democratic incumbent by less than a single percentage point, just before redistricting transformed the 2nd into a fairly safe Republican seat. In 2012, the district voted for Mitt Romney over Obama by 16 points, while reelecting Ellmers by 14 points.
There are currently only three Democratic representatives in the House whose districts voted for Romney by comparable or higher margins than Ellmers’: Rep. Jim Matheson (D-Utah), Rep. Mike McIntyre (D-N.C.), and Rep. Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.). All three representatives had the benefit of an entrenched incumbency in 2012, and each represents a district that was fundamentally altered by redistricting in 2010 to lean more Republican.
Aiken’s fame could trump the district’s demographic and political leanings, but there is little precedent for the circumstances surrounding his potential run -- a celebrity Democratic candidate campaigning in a heavily Republican state and district. Most celebrity candidates who have won political office, such as Ronald Reagan, Sonny Bono, Jesse Ventura, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sean Duffy and Heath Shuler, ran in areas that aligned with their profiles and political leanings.
The candidate in recent electoral history whose success Aiken may most want to emulate is former Rep. Ben Jones (D-Ga.). Jones, a cast member of the TV show "The Dukes of Hazzard", defeated then-incumbent Rep. Pat Swindall (R) in a conservative Atlanta district in 1988. But he not only ran against a scandal-plagued incumbent -- an advantage Aiken is unlikely to have -- he also lost his seat four years later. And unlike Jones, Aiken will be running in a district made Republican through redistricting in an non-presidential year election.
Aiken’s candidacy comes as prospects for Democratic congressional candidates appear less than ideal. The president’s low approval rating can have a correlative affect on his party’s candidates, and the president’s party almost always loses congressional seats in midterm elections. Flipping a seat controlled by the opposition party in the midterms is a heavy lift, and in a district where the president remains unpopular, it’s next to impossible.
Aiken's candidacy, however, still has a few things going for it. He is from nearby Raleigh, and could bring a familiarity with the district and its issues to the campaign trail. Democrats also hold a slight registration edge in the district, which has an African-American population that is several points larger than the national average. In addition, Aiken has a decade's worth of show business connections that he could parlay into fundraising.
Aiken also has the benefit of a potentially divisive Republican primary. Ellmers has drawn a primary challenge from former banking executive and current radio talk show host Frank Roche. Roche has indicated that he intends to run to Ellmers’ right, attacking her vote to raise the debt ceiling and her support for immigration reform. An arch-conservative Republican nominee could provide the Democrats with just enough room in the middle to win.
These advantages have yet to convince some onlookers, though. University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato continues to list the district as ‘Safe Republican’, while political handicappers Stu Rothenberg and Charlie Cook have yet to deem the race as being in play.
“I don’t think he wants a repeat performance of ‘American Idol,'" Randy Voller, North Carolina's Democratic Party chair, said of Aiken. "I think he wants to finish first, not second.”
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