Clay Aiken running for Congress: What's 'American Idol' star's strategy?

'American Idol' star Clay Aiken, a Democrat, isn't just running on his celebrity. In a district neighboring Fort Bragg, he's campaigning in part from the right, as a guardian of military interests.

Jim Ruymen/Reuters/File
'American Idol' finalist Clay Aiken performs at the American Music Awards in Los Angeles on Nov. 16, 2003. On Wednesday, Mr. Aiken announced that he will run for Congress as a Democrat in his home state of North Carolina.

Clay Aiken is indeed running for Congress from his home state of North Carolina. He announced his candidacy on Tuesday night after weeks of rumors that he’d try to oust incumbent Rep. Renee Ellmers (R) from her Raleigh-area 2nd District seat.

As befits a recording star and former "American Idol" runner-up, Mr. Aiken didn’t just issue a press statement. He released a five-minute video on his new campaign website in which he talks about his life story and frames his case for election.

No, he didn’t sing. Instead, Aiken talked about growing up poor as the son of a single parent: “I remember all too well Mom working nights at Sears and clothes from the thrift store." He stressed his noncelebrity background as a special-education teacher. He said he was a Democrat who had learned the benefits of working across the aisle after being appointed to an education panel by President Bush.

Then he attacked potential GOP foe Representative Ellmers from the right. Yes, you read that correctly. He said that she had voted for “massive cuts in the military” per the direction of her party leadership.

“This is what’s wrong with Washington, that a congressman would go there and vote against the best interests of North Carolina military families,” Aiken concluded.

The spot was well produced yet simple. It’s a guideline to Aiken’s apparent strategy, if he wins the primary and makes it to a general election: Run as a bipartisan-leaning problem-solver and tie Ellmers to the unpopular GOP House leadership. Plus, position yourself as the true guardian of military interests, which is pretty important for a district that neighbors Fort Bragg, one of the biggest Army bases in the United States.

Can it work? He’s got an uphill road. As we wrote last month, the North Carolina 2nd is a pretty Republican district.

It’s true that it was represented by a Democrat, Rep. Bob Etheridge, from 1997 until 2011. But in recent years, it appears to have tilted ever more to the right. Mitt Romney beat Barack Obama there by 17 points in 2012. Plus, it’s a midterm election, in which the president’s party often loses seats. University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato rates the district “safe" Republican in his Crystal Ball ratings of House races.

In fact, we figured that Aiken would pull an Ashley Judd: He’d talk about running but, in the end, decide against it, because of the high possibility of defeat. (Ms. Judd considered opposing Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell in Kentucky, but eventually passed up the race.)

The district’s relatively high 30 percent proportion of African-American voters is in Aiken’s favor. If he can combine that reliably Democratic constituency with a good showing among military voters, he may have a chance. Also, unlike Senator McConnell in Kentucky, Ellmers does not appear to be taking her celebrity opponent too seriously.

McConnell ran ads attacking Judd even though she was but a notional contender. So far, Ellmers has limited herself to ridiculing Aiken’s singing.

“Apparently his performing career isn’t going so well and he’s bored,” she said in a radio appearance this week.

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