RALEIGH, N.C. — A sure sign of our adolescent approach to politics in the United States is that wrestlers, stand-up comedians, and reality TV stars can run for office — and win. The latest chapter in the ongoing saga of celebrities-turned-politicians could unfold in North Carolina.
Sources have informed the Washington Blade that Clay Aiken, of American Idol fame, has met with Democratic political operatives to weigh a potential bid for Congress in the Tar Heel State’s 2nd Congressional District, located in the central part of the state near Raleigh.
Aiken exploded onto the reality TV circuit in 2003 when he placed second on American Idol. (As an aside, one must admire the power of reality TV when a second place finish propels one to stardom.) Since his victory, Aiken has released numerous albums and become something of a 21st-century pop culture personality, in that unusual vein of celebrity made possible by reality TV and YouTube.
In contemporary America, such a background qualifies one for elected office. Apparently.
Aiken is 35-years-old, a talented singer, self-proclaimed born-again Christian, and openly homosexual. Were he to run and win, he would confirm the paradox of Tar Heel politics: How can a state be represented in the U.S. Senate by Jesse Helms and John Edwards at the same time? The same way the socially conservative state could send an openly homosexual man to Washington, D.C.
Much as political reporters would love to cover such a race, the chances of an Aiken bid for office are minuscule. It’s unlikely that Aiken will enter to begin with. If he does, he would face a formidable challenge in the Democratic primary from Keith Crisco, former secretary of the N.C. Department of Commerce, who has announced his candidacy.
Whoever wins the Democratic nomination will face an uphill battle in a strongly Republican district. Renee Ellmers, a nurse by occupation and rising star in GOP circles, has represented the 2nd Congressional District since 2010, when she defeated long-time Democratic incumbent Bob “who are you?” Etheridge in an unexpected win.
By 2012, Ellmers was firmly ensconced. She coasted to re-election, benefitting from a Republican-friendly redistricting plan that shifted her district’s Democrat registered voter advantage from two-to-one to roughly equal with Republicans.
Ellmers’ re-election prospects are solid for 2014. Even so, she faces a potentially tough challenge from the right. Talk-show host Frank Roche has entered the race, and others might join him before candidate filing ends in late February.
In addition to catching flak from some conservatives for being too cozy with the GOP establishment in Washington, Ellmers has experienced a few miscues. During the government shutdown in October, she initially refused to give up her congressional paycheck, claiming that she needed the money to meet expenses. Later, she reversed course.
Obviously, that refusal, coming at a time when hundreds of thousands of federal workers were furloughed, didn’t sit well with many voters.
Back to Aiken. If the singer does enter the race, one issue that doubtless would receive ample attention is same-sex marriage. Even as support for homosexual unions has grown at the national level, North Carolina has remained socially conservative. In 2012, the state approved a marriage-protection amendment by a 61 percent to 39 percent spread.
Were Aiken to make homosexual issues a prominent part of his campaign, he would face blowback from the culturally conservative voters in the 2nd Congressional District. Back in 2012, he weighed into the debate with a false prediction that North Carolinians would reject the marriage amendment.
Ellmers herself says that she supports traditional marriage, but she opposed North Carolina’s amendment because it also banned civil unions.
Beyond social issues, Aiken lacks the economic policy chops to be competitive. In the right election year, Ellmers’ district could be a viable challenge for the right candidate. But Democrats would need to nominate a moderate, business-friendly contender who, at a minimum, ignored social issues or leaned conservative on them. Clearly, Aiken is not that candidate.
Since America is now in the mold of proffering celebrities for higher office, might I venture a suggestion? As an evangelical Christian and deep-voiced country music singer, Scotty McCreery — also of American Idol fame — would be a much better fit for North Carolina’s political landscape (running as a Republican, of course).
Besides which, McCreery has one qualification that makes him far more qualified for public office than Aiken — he placed first, not second, on American Idol.