Sure, Clay Aiken's announcement video is sensational. Check it out. But J. Keith Crisco, the other leading candidate for the Democratic nomination in the 2nd congressional district, has a video too. But Crisco's has 985 views on YouTube. Aiken's, after five days, had nearly half a million.
But then, Crisco's candidacy was a snoozer, notwithstanding his experience, before Aiken jumped in against him last week. Suddenly, Democrats everywhere were debating whether Crisco, 70, the business leader, or Aiken, 35, the celebrity showman, stands the better chance against incumbent Republican Renee Ellmers.
Before I get to Aiken vs. Crisco, though, I should mention that in 2003 when Aiken was on American Idol, I was completely caught up in the drama. The first time I tuned in, with the field already down to six or seven finalists, I predicted that Aiken would defeat the early front-runner, Ruben Studdard, based on equal singing ability and a big edge in likeability.
Aiken, a nerd with a shaky voice when he started, was in the process of transforming himself into a full-fledged star. Actually, he was freeing his inner star. He also seemed to be genuinely nice—a credit to his mother, his Raleigh upbringing and our much-vaunted "North Carolina values."
When it came down to Aiken-Studdard on the final night, I tried to vote for Aiken, only to be thwarted by a busy signal at his AT&T number. I remain convinced that Studdard's narrow win was because too many of us Claymates called too few AT&T lines—and we overwhelmed the system.
Point being, I'm not objective about Aiken. But then, politics isn't a talent show, is it?
Of course it is, and the primaries are the auditions. Democrats and Republicans are looking for a cast of candidates to best represent them—put on the best show, you might say. Some prefer candidates who showcase an issue. Others want candidates who can win.
For her part, Ellmers is a little goofy, but not in an amusing, screwball-comedy way. If a House Republican is saying something stupid about Obamacare, it's probably Ellmers. A registered nurse, she's become a go-to spokeswoman for the House Republican leadership, which makes her anathema to some rank-and-file Republicans who consider their House leaders too darned reasonable. (No, seriously.)
Thus, Ellmers has a GOP primary challenge from tea party extremist Frank Roche, though Ellmers should win.
Remember, too, that the Republican General Assembly gerrymandered our congressional districts. That means that the 2nd District, a collection of suburban and rural precincts in parts of eight counties—including some of Wake—has been engineered to vote Republican.
The argument for Crisco, as the Democratic nominee, is that he's from Republican Randolph County and might cut into Ellmers' margins in the western part of the district. Crisco was Gov. Bev Perdue's Secretary of Commerce and employs 200 people in his Asheboro textile company. As Democratic analyst Thomas Mills says, he's a "business-friendly moderate from a small town," which used to be a winning formula for Democrats in rural North Carolina but isn't so much any more.
No, in this district peeling off a few moderate voters from the Republicans isn't going to get it done. Especially in a mid-term election when voter turnout drops—and usually the drop-off is greater for Democrats.
The idea of Clay Aiken as a congressional candidate struck me as silly—until I watched his announcement video. Once again, Aiken succeeded in transforming himself, this time from the gutsy kid I remembered into a mature candidate with a passion for helping others.
He talks about being raised by a single mom who fled an abusive husband. He talks about teaching special-education classes for children with autism and his work for UNICEF. He gets it that politics is for helping those in need—and zaps Ellmers for voting to shut down the government but wanting her own paycheck delivered as usual. (She did back off that dumb comment.)
Lawrence O'Donnell, the MSNBC analyst and an old Democratic hand, told Aiken: "I have not seen anyone put out a better campaign announcement than that and a better, more strongly put and impassioned rationale for running."
And don't just go by the video. Read up on Aiken and you'll discover that this young man who burst forth on American Idol has used his talents to help children with disabilities, not just to enrich himself.
The argument for Aiken, as Democratic analyst Gary Pearce wrote in support of his candidacy, is that he can mobilize a new wave of younger voters to come out for the Democrats. "He can inject new energy, reshape the electorate and shake up the race," Pearce wrote.
Well, that's a tall order, but let me say this. For the Democrats, 2014 is not about the 2nd congressional district. It's about gaining back some seats in the General Assembly and getting U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan re-elected, thus helping to preserve the Democrats' majority in the Senate.
To that end, the party must mount a good show, with strong candidates in the supporting roles—candidates who command attention and draw new voters to the polls.
I haven't mentioned that Aiken is gay. But Ellmers did with her sophomoric crack about "San Francisco values." No matter. In our cast, homegrown LGBTQ talents are needed and welcome.
Like I said, Ellmers isn't amusing. And Aiken? He gets better and better.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Claymation."