The report that Democratic singer Clay Aiken is mulling a bid for a North Carolina congressional seat has been met with a bit of skepticism — not that it is not true, but that he follows a long line of entertainment industry personas to weigh a move into politics, tease the notion with well-publicized inquiries with D.C. figures, but then ultimately choose not to run.
Even though Aiken, if he chooses to run, would be trying to unseat a Republican in a seat that once was long held by a Democrat, redistricting has made the 2nd District, in an area surrounding Raleigh, more red, not less.
Rumors have apparently been around for some time that he was eyeing the seat. According to WRAL in Raleigh, one of its producers asked him last week whether he would run, and he said he was not planning on it. On Thursday, the Washington Blade, citing unnamed sources, reported that he was “actively considering” a run, that that he had discussed it with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and other political operatives.
The first major hurdle that Aiken would have is running as a Democrat in a district that appears to be safe Republican, particularly after redistricting. David Wasserman, house editor and political analyst for Cook Political Report, said that the seat is currently running as R+11, meaning that the Republican candidate is expected to run 11 points ahead of the party’s national average in the midterms. The seat is currently held by Republican Renee Elmers, who is also facing a challenger in her own party. The deadline to register to run for the May 6 primary is Feb. 28.
Wasserman said that, for a Democrat, the seat is “basically impenetrable.”
“Clay Aiken’s bid would be symbolic, but the district is too solidly Republican for a Democrat to have a chance, even for someone of his star power,” he says.
But even if the dynamics were more favorable for a Democrat, he still would face big hurdles. He would enter the race with heavy name recognition, and a record for speaking out for various causes, testifying for anti-bullying legislation before Congress and even appearing on CBS’s “Face the Nation” to debate same-sex marriage against social conservative Tony Perkins, as well as an ability to raise substantial amounts of money from Hollywood and LGBT sources. But he still would have to establish credibility that he was serious. That’s why comedian Al Franken told few jokes in the year-and-a-half that he ran for a U.S. Senate seat in Minnesota, ultimately winning after a recount. His campaign zeroed in on serious issues and his Minnesota roots, and save for his fundraising, very little on celebrity.
The leap from public celebrity figure to public celebrity political figure also means an intense level of scrutiny, where every past statement or offhand comment is parsed and seized upon by the opposition. As she considered running for a Senate seat in Kentucky against Mitch McConnell, Ashley Judd was a target of GOP attack ads that characterized her as a carpetbagger and out-of-touch Hollywood liberal. To the relief of some Democrats who see real hope in unseating the Senate Minority Leader, she decided not to run. That also was the case with actor Val Kilmer, who decided against running for governor of New Mexico after weighing the idea in 2009.
There’s also an oddity in politics: Even though Hollywood and the entertainment industry has long leaned to the left, it’s been the Republican figures, like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Ronald Reagan, even Fred Grandy, who’ve had the most success in electoral politics. Whereas Democratic celebrities have to overcome the hurdle of being beholden to the liberal elite, Republican celebrities appear to be rewarded for going against the grain.
If Aiken does surprise and gets in the race, he’d at least establish some credentials in elective politics, and maybe even make headway in highlighting issues like same-sex marriage in a state that has roundly rejected them. His race would have national prominence and he’d cast himself in another role than the “American Idol” star. But make no mistake, he’d be running in a district where his prospects are as a longshot.