Milling about among the guests were the stage performers Betty Buckley, Christine Ebersole, Beth Leavel and Clay Aiken. The first three sang. Aiken did not. The other three sang for him. For it was his fundraiser.
Aiken, still best known to the public for his second-place finish in the second season of “American Idol,” is running for Congress. He is the Democrats’ candidate in the Second District of his home state of North Carolina.
Those who may have chuckled a few months ago when Aiken announced his candidacy are laughing no longer. He won the Democratic primary May 6 and is considered to have more than a fighting chance to topple the Republican incumbent, Renee Ellmers, Nov. 4. The two candidates participated in a debate Oct. 6.
“I think a lot of people have been surprised with the success we’ve had,” he commented. “But I haven’t been as surprised. I don’t get into something that I don’t think I have an ability to be successful at.”
Aiken — who was born in Raleigh, which is part of the 2nd District, and, apart for a few years shortly after “Idol” and a tour with Monty Python's Spamalot, has lived there much of the last ten years — said the decision to run for office was “a slow burn.” “It was an opportunity that presented itself slowly over several years. But at the end of the day, it was the effect of seeing various things that had been happening to my state; some of the things with gerrymandering, redistricting some of these seats where some people not only didn’t have to be help accountable, but didn’t have to do their jobs, because they felt they were in a position where they didn’t have to do what they were elected to do. I recognized I had the opportunity to get people to pay attention and hold people accountable.”
In recent years, North Carolina, traditionally a moderate state as far southern states go, has taken a decided swing to the right. In 2010 the Republicans won a majority of both houses of the state legislature for the first time since 1898. A subsequent redistricting plan redrew political lines to favor Republicans. In 2012 the state elected its first Republican governor, Pat McCrory, and lieutenant governor in more than two decades. Soon after, McCrory appointed as his budget director James “Art” Pope, a conservative multi-millionaire and activist who has spent much of his wealth in support of Republican candidates and conservative causes.
Despite the political climate, Aiken still believes he has a chance to be sent to Washington.
“Most people in the country are moderates,” he said. “They’re somewhere in the middle of the field. Unfortunately, in more recent years, the people who tend to vote and get active in primaries tend to live on the fringes. And so you get politicians who live on the fringes.”
Aiken described the Second District as “very independent-minded districts. We’ve got a lot of disparity.” He mentioned Cary, a suburb of Raleigh where many young people with high tech jobs live; Fort Bragg, the largest military base in the U.S.; and various rural and farming areas.
“What they have in common there is they don’t necessarily vote for parties, they vote for people,” he continued. “They’ve voted for Republicans in the past, they’ve voted for Democrats in the past. They have an independent streak in them.”
That Aiken was in New York gathering support for his run makes sense to anyone who knows his career. In 2008, he joined the Broadway cast of Spamalot. The New York theatre community never quite forgot him.
“I think it’s important to have support of people I care about and I’ve had a relationship with,” said Aiken. “The Broadway community is renowned for being very tight-knit and supportive of one another.”
Asked if his experience as an actor and singer has aided him in any way on the campaign trail, Aiken quipped, “I think a lot of politicians are certainly performers.” He allowed, however, that his stage experiences had allowed him to speak publicly with ease. “I have been involved with press situations for years, yes,” he added.
Despite his singing background, Aiken, perhaps surprisingly, does not have an official campaign song. However, he said, "We do play The Four Tops ‘Walk Away, Renee’ around the office a lot.”
Watch Aiken discuss his campaign below.