“I do think that story qualifies me in the sense that I understand that we all go through issues, that we all go through struggles in life and they make us who we are and we learn from them, and for that reason I think empathy and caring for the people you represent is a really important qualification for Congress,” Aiken said Wednesday in an interview on CNN’s “Newsroom.”
A few hours earlier the singer of “American Idol” fame announced that he was seeking the Democratic nomination to challenge Republican Rep. Renee Ellmers in North Carolina’s 2nd Congressional District.
In a video put up on his campaign website, Aiken highlighted his personal story, sharing that he grew up in a home torn apart by domestic violence, and how that inspired him to be a voice for the powerless. He also touted his work as a special education teacher for students with autism.
“The years I spent as a special education teacher for students with autism was my first window into the difference that a person can make in someone’s life,” Aiken said.
In his video, and in his CNN interview, Aiken criticized the partisanship that smothers Congress, saying “I am not a politician. I never want to be one. But I do want to bring back, at least to my corner of North Carolina, the idea that someone can go to Washington to represent all the people, whether they voted for you or not.”
But he sounded a bit like a politician as he criticized Ellmers for her votes on the government shutdown and funding for the military.
“Fort Bragg, one of the largest and most important military installations in the country, is based in this district. And yet some of the votes that Congresswoman Ellmers has taken have directly affected negatively military families and military members, and that’s frustrating because that says ‘she’s not listening,'” Aiken told CNN’s Brooke Baldwin.
Aiken, 35, claimed that Ellmers voted the way her party leaders told her to, saying that “in the end, convinced me that if I didn’t try and do something about it, then I couldn’t complain if no one else did.”
Ellmers, when asked about Aiken in a recent radio interview on WMAL in North Carolina, said “currently his performing career is not going so well, and he’s very bored.”
Aiken, who came out as gay in 2008, gained national attention when he came in second to Ruben Studdard in the second season of American Idol. Aiken joins two other Democrats who have already declared their bids for Congress in the district.
Can Aiken win?
Aiken’s celebrity status gives him instant name recognition in the district, where he grew up, and should allow him to raise a lot of campaign cash.
But the second congressional district, located in the central and eastern parts of North Carolina, is GOP country. The two-term Ellmers won 56% of the vote in her 2012 re-election, slightly underperforming the GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney, who beat President Barack Obama 58%-41% in the district.
Asked in his CNN interview about whether he can be competitive against Ellmers if he wins the Democratic nomination, Aiken said “I don’t think it (North Carolina’s second congressional district) is redder than red,” adding that “I don’t think anyone lives on one end of the political spectrum or the other. Everyone lives somewhere in the middle.”
While Aiken’s entry into the race will put the contest in the national spotlight, some top non-partisan political handicappers don’t think it will make the contest more competitive.
“I think this will become the highest profile, non-competitive race in the country. If Aiken wasn’t running as a Democrat in a Republican district in President Obama’s second midterm, he might have a decent shot,” Nathan Gonzales, deputy editor of the non-partisan Rothenberg Political Report, told CNN. “Being on American idol doesn’t change the fact that he’s a Democrat in a Republican district.”
David Wasserman, House editor at the Cook Report, another leading non-partisan political handicapper, agreed.
“He will make the race much more interesting, but there is still virtually no chance a Democrat – even a celebrity – can beat a GOP incumbent in such a solidly Republican, gerrymandered seat as long as President Obama’s approval ratings are what they are.”
A Democrat with deep knowledge of North Carolina politics told CNN Aiken “is loved by a lot of people in North Carolina, and his appeal cuts across party lines after his American Idol run.”
“But jumping into politics will change that,” said the Democrat, who asked to remain anonymous to speak more freely.