Clay Aiken's Long-Shot Bid for Congress and Celebrity Redemption

Aiken Photograph by Matthew Eisman/WireImage

Celebrity must be addictive: Fading stars reliably grasp at any opportunity to stay in the public eye. Actors, athletes, and entertainers seem to have a particular attraction to politics. Maybe that’s because the senators and presidents they encounter at fundraisers and Super Bowls seem glamorous in a way that roughly equates to their own fame. Perhaps it’s because, viewed through Hollywood’s lens, politics seems exciting and noble. The grinding, soul-crushing job of a politician—endless fundraising, travel, and gridlock—almost certainly doesn’t enter the equation. So it is that Clay Aiken, American Idol runner-up in 2003, has decided to challenge Republican Representative Renee Ellmers in North Carolina’s 2nd congressional district. Aiken, a Democrat, announced his campaign in a video released this morning:

Although Aiken will surely get an inordinate amount of attention, and may (who knows?) raise a lot of money from enamored fans—who, by now, are probably old enough to have jobs—he’s a long shot to win the race. This is almost always true of celebrities who seek public office. For every Fred Grandy (“Gopher” on The Love Boat), who served four terms as an Iowa congressman, there’s an Ashley Judd, who made a big show of wanting to challenge Senator Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) before ultimately wilting, or a Gary Coleman, whose 2003 candidacy for California governor had camp appeal but resulted in an eighth-place finish.

Aiken’s bid appears to be a professional one. He has consulted with real Democratic strategists and hired a respected ad firm to shoot his announcement video. He makes sophisticated attacks against Ellmers. His real challenge will be running as a Democrat in a district that favored Mitt Romney over Barack Obama by 12 points. He’ll also be looking to oust an incumbent in Ellmers, who is well positioned to draw independents and conservative Democrats.

Ellmers was a Tea Party favorite when she was first elected in 2010. She has since clashed with—and, as a result, been targeted by—such conservative pressure groups as the Heritage Foundation (as I documented in this piece) that deemed her insufficiently committed to the right-wing line when she objected to shutting down the government to defund Obamacare. Ellmers didn’t shrink from the attacks and came away from the shutdown looking more reasonable than many of her Republican colleagues. That will help her.

In the end, Aiken’s best hope is that 2nd district voters feel a kinship with a hometown boy and cross party lines to support him. Otherwise, he may find himself a runner-up once again.

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