WASHINGTON -- Singer Clay Aiken launched his bid for Congress Wednesday, saying he was confident it was possible to win as a Democrat running in a conservative North Carolina district.
"I understand that some numbers and pollsters would consider this district to be more conservative. I certainly don't think that it is a liberal district," Aiken told The Huffington Post in an interview. "That said, again, I think most people vote regardless of the party designation. They vote based on who they can trust and who they can know has their best interest at heart. And I think when we compel Congresswoman [Renee] Ellmers to run on her record, we're going to see people recognizing she really hasn't had their best interest at heart, but more so hers."
Aiken rose to national fame in 2003, when he came in second to Ruben Studdard on "American Idol." Since then, in addition to his music career, Aiken has been an activist, serving on the President's Committee for People with Intellectual Disabilities following an appointment by President George W. Bush. In 2008, Aiken announced that he was gay, and in 2012, he spoke out forcefully against North Carolina's proposed constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.
Aiken kicked off his campaign this week with a five-minute video talking about his background -- including his father's domestic abuse of his mother and his own time teaching special education -- and criticizing Ellmers, who was elected in the tea party wave of 2010, for supporting cuts to military benefits under sequestration.
In his interview with HuffPost, Aiken also went after Ellmers for last year's government shutdown, lamenting that in the current Congress, politics seem to be a zero-sum game. He drew upon his experience on "American Idol" and in the music industry as an example of how relations could be more productive.
"I hate to use an 'American Idol' analogy because that's not who I am ... but for me to win 'Idol,' I didn't have to trip Ruben on stage. I didn't make him look bad," he said. "And people are spending more time in D.C. trying to make their opponent look bad than they are actually doing good stuff. For me to be successful on 'Idol,' I just had to do my very best. And if I did my very best, it would pay off for me. And if politicians, regardless of the party, would go up to D.C. and do their very best, you would see that effect for everyone in the country."
"I've realized over the past few weeks as I've really been getting into the meat of preparing for this announcement and kicking off this campaign that politics is the only business, if you want to call it that -- the only industry where one person's success is wholly dependent on the failure of someone else," he added.
Aiken will first have to win the Democratic primary if he wants to face Ellmers in the general election. Former North Carolina Commerce Secretary Keith Crisco and professional counselor Toni Morris are competing with Aiken in the primary. Attorney Houston Barnes was in the race but now plans to withdraw and back Aiken.
Ellmers, for her part, has already gone after Aiken, making fun of him in a radio interview with WMAL last week.
"Apparently, his performing career is not going so well. He's very bored," Ellmers said. "I'll tell you, I'm a little hurt. I think he has an incredible voice and he's incredibly talented, and I'd rather have his support."
She also joked that he "didn't really fare all that well" on "American Idol."
When asked about Ellmers' comments, Aiken looked on the bright side. "Well, what I heard her say was that I had a beautiful voice. So I appreciate voice. I choose not to hear the other stuff," he said.
"Listen, like I said, I think the key to being successful -- not just in politics but in life -- is to put your best foot forward and show people why they should vote for you or like you or support you," he added. "That said, if there are things that she has done in office that have affected people in the district, I think those are fair game. But whether or not I won a TV show or not has nothing to do with my ability to represent people. I'm not going to respond to middle-school games."
Aiken's district comprises part of the Raleigh suburbs as well as a swath of the central and eastern parts of the state. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney won it in 2012.
Aiken said he disagreed with President Barack Obama on the issue of the National Security Agency's intelligence gathering and believed Obamacare needed some changes, although he emphasized that "it is predominantly a law that is full of very valuable provisions."
"I'm a little unsettled by some of the actions of the NSA and some of the invasions of privacy that have been allowed under this administration. That is concerning to me," he said, adding that he would also like to see Obama "do a better job of reaching out" to the other side in general.
Aiken is a supporter of the Employment Non-Discrimation Act, which would bar workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Although the legislation passed the Senate last year and has bipartisan support in the House, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has shown no willingness to bring it up for a vote. With Obama vowing to be more aggressive in using his executive authority to bypass a deadlocked Congress, many lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights groups have been calling on the president to sign a non-discrimination order covering federal contractors.
Aiken said he believes his district is supportive of ENDA, but he was skeptical whether an executive order would be a good idea.
"Would I like to see something enacted? Yes," he said. "I think the only reason I'm hesitant about having the president sign any sort of executive order is that it's not permanent. I think permanence is important. Stability is important. If we let the president make laws that then the next president who comes in decides to overturn without talking to Congress or whatnot, I think that's when we have a country that's unstable. I would like that particular law to be passed and not overturned by one person's decision."