“American Idol” runner-up Clay Aiken could come in second place again on Tuesday – this time in a congressional primary in North Carolina.
Aiken is running for the Democratic nomination in the Tar Heel State’s 2nd District, along with former North Carolina Commerce Secretary Keith Crisco and mental health counselor Toni Morris. All three are looking to take on GOP Rep. Renee Ellmers in this heavily Republican district in November.
But the “Idol” star has largely banked on his famous name to get him through the May 6 primary — and the state's political operatives say his celebrity status may not be enough to win the nomination.
Even Aiken's campaign is hedging their chances.
"We’ve been outspent and that concerns me," said Gary Pearce, a longtime North Carolina Democratic operative who advises Aiken's campaign. "Clay has a lot going in the district and has strong popularity, but right now I wouldn’t be surprised either way."
In an April 12 phone interview with CQ Roll Call, Aiken said he was confident about his primary chances, touting his own campaign's poll that showed him with a 20-point lead.
"In all honesty, Keith has name recognition that is substantially lower, and we are having every expectation to save everything for the general," Aiken said. "The general is going to be an expensive one, so determining how much we care to put into a primary that we are feeling pretty confident about, versus saving some for the general, is where the decision is now."
But the dynamics of the race have shifted since then.
Aiken reported disappointing fundraising. Privately, North Carolina Democrats said his campaign spent too much money on initial start-up costs and consulting fees — and not enough on direct voter communication.
“This is a quintessential celebrity campaign that is way too top heavy and way too focused on everybody getting paid and not talking to voters,” said one North Carolina Democratic operative unaffiliated with the race.
Crisco, Aiken's top primary opponent, outspent Aiken on the television airwaves by nearly a 4-to-1 margin in the primary, according to a source tracking media buys in the district.
Crisco brought in $755,000 for his bid through the April 16 — including $530,000 in personal loans to his campaign (see more House campaign fundraising numbers here ). It was enough to get Crisco on the television airwaves in March – two months before the primary – to raise his familiarity with voters in the district.
To compare, Aiken raised $287,000 through April 16, the pre-primary reporting deadline for the Federal Election Commission. The sum was unexpectedly small for a celebrity candidate, who can often raise large amounts from famous friends.
Of those funds, Aiken spent $57,000 in advertising production and editing costs for a web video and 30-second bio spot , according to his fundraising reports filed with the FEC. A larger chunk of his campaign funds, $87,000, went toward consultant fees and polling.
Democratic operatives tracking media buys in the district estimate Aiken spent about $100,000 to air his 30-second bio spot on Raleigh broadcast networks in the two-weeks leading-up to the primary.
Meanwhile, Aiken has been fielding attacks from Crisco on television and in a direct mail piece.
The attacks hit the "Idol" star for not attending meetings for the President's Commission for People With Intellectual Disabilities – a post Aiken was nominated for by then-President George W. Bush.
Aiken touts the post in his biographical spot as one of his key qualifications for Congress.
“Crisco has been on the air talking about North Carolina values for a long time, and as soon as Aiken went up on the air, Crisco had the [attack] ad on the air,” said another North Carolina political operative with no ties to the race.
So far, Aiken has not answered Crisco's accusations in paid advertisements in the district. Instead, he's been defending himself and attacking Crisco in national media appearances on MSNBC and Huffington Post Live — outlets that probably don't get a lot of eyeballs in a rural North Carolina district. To be sure, anything can happen in a low turnout primary in a midterm election year. And Aiken's famous name could boost him to victory in a primary. Regardless, the Democratic nominee will have a steep uphill climb in November. Mitt Romney carried the seat with 58 percent in 2012, making it one of the strongest Republican districts in the state.
The race is rated a Safe Republican contest by Rothenberg Political Report/Roll Call.