From 'American Idol' to Congress? Clay Aiken seeks new golden ticket

From 'American Idol' to Congress? Clay Aiken seeks new golden ticket
In a file photo from 2003, Clay Aiken, right, with eventual "American Idol" winner Ruben Studdard. (Vince Bucci / Getty Images)

This might be the very definition of a long shot: Democrat and former "American Idol" contestant Clay Aiken, whose biggest political action to date has been a fight for gay marriage, jumps into the race against a Republican congresswoman in a strongly Republican district, in the South no less.

Aiken's campaign, which officially began Wednesday, has a better chance of being memorable for its celebrity roots than for victory.


Aiken, however, is attempting a novel political turn, portraying the tea party incumbent as insufficiently concerned with American military might, a pitch threaded with a tactic rare for Republicans, much less Democrats: an imprimatur of sorts from George W. Bush.

In a debut video, Aiken acknowledged that he is a Democrat but says that his appointment by Bush to a commission on special needs children—he taught autistic students before finding musical fame—"was when I first realized that our problems won't be solved by only one party or the other but instead it's going to require all of us."

In the sort of honey-smothered tones common to Southern politics, he eviscerated Republican Renee Ellmers' budget votes, including ones for the government shutdown that forced furloughs in the 2nd District's behemoth Ft. Bragg.

"This is what's wrong with Washington, that a congresswoman would go there and vote against the  best interests of North Carolina military families and those who depend on the military for their jobs," Aiken said. "To do it when you know it's wrong is even worse, and to do it because your national party told you to?"

Ellmers' spokeswoman Jessica Wood wasted no time playing another sort of culture card, telling the News-Observer in Raleigh that Aiken, who is gay, was "a performer whose political views more closely resemble those of San Francisco than Sanford."

"Renee best represents the values of the voters in the 2nd District and remains focused on fighting for their families," she wrote in an email.

Aiken's effort typifies the celebrity approach to politics, melding the resources gained in the entertainment world with a persona that hearkens to the down-home figure beneath the glitter.

Republican Sonny Bono found success in Congress when he sought the same career change, but there were substantial differences: Bono had run on his business credentials—he was a successful restaurateur--to win office as Palm Springs' mayor, giving him some political chits. Still, he lost a primary bid for U.S. Senate before winning a Republican House seat which he held until his death in 1998.

Aiken, now 35, is running in a district that voted strongly Republican even in 2008, when President Obama eked out victory in the state. Ellmers, a nurse who turned to politics in 2010 during the battle over Obama's healthcare plan, easily won reelection in 2012, outpacing Mitt Romney's narrow win statewide in the presidential contest.

Usually, celebrities rise with a sophisticated reinvention of themselves. In Aiken's case, he is trying to reinvent Ellmers as the prototypical member of Congress whose head has been turned by the marble hallways of the Capitol, a popular punching bag in this era of Congress-bashing.

He made only passing reference to his "American Idol" days, casting music as something that his mother used to soothe him after she'd fled an abusive husband with her 1-year-old in tow. He staged his campaign kickoff video not in the expansive home that his entertainment earnings bought him but in the house where he and his mother sought refuge all those years ago. It was a cottage spare and almost unfurnished, the exact opposite of glitz, which was the point.

"If you only know the part of my story that begins with a golden ticket-- something that still seems unbelievable to me even to this day-- you might wonder what would qualify me to run," said Aiken, who went on to detail his family's once-dire circumstances and his work teaching needy children. "For most Americans there are no golden tickets, at least not like the kind you see on TV. More families are struggling today than at any time in our history, and here in North Carolina we've suffered more than our share of pain."

"I'm not a politician," he said. "I don't ever want to be one."

And so his political campaign began.


Twitter: @cathleendecker