Everyone take a deep breath. Thanks to Clay Aiken, North Carolina’s 2nd District just became the most talked-about House race in the country. Unfortunately, the hype doesn’t match up with the reality.
The truth is that Aiken’s challenge to GOP Rep. Renee Ellmers doesn’t even make the list of 50 most competitive House races. Political handicapping might seem like some sort of mysterious and magical formula, but for the vast majority of contests, it’s very simple. And in this case, Aiken is a Democrat running in a very Republican district.
That’s about all you need to know. Running as a Democrat in a Republican district in President Barack Obama’s second midterm election will very likely trump any celebrity appeal gained from "American Idol" or "The Celebrity Apprentice."
Let’s put an Aiken candidacy into context: Ellmers was first elected in 2010 by defeating Democratic Rep. Bob Etheridge by less than 1 point in a great Republican year. But that was in a dramatically different district. Obama won that district in 2008 with 52 percent, but Republicans subsequently redrew the congressional lines, and the 2nd became a district that John McCain would have won 56 percent to 43 percent. That’s a dramatic partisan shift, and Ellmers won re-election with 56 percent in 2012.
The bottom line is that, if Aiken were elected, North Carolina’s 2nd District would be the second-most-Republican district represented by a Democrat. (Mitt Romney had 57 percent of the vote there to Obama's 42 percent in 2012.) If Democratic Rep. Nick J. Rahall II loses re-election in West Virginia’s 3rd District (where Obama had 33 percent), Aiken would be a Democrat representing the most Republican district in the country.
Can Aiken become the next Jim Matheson, Mike McIntyre, John Barrow, or Collin C. Peterson? It would be very difficult, considering that those Democratic congressmen have been able to hold on to their seats because they were incumbents and demonstrated deep ties to their districts. Aiken is a political neophyte who will be more easily defined as a national Democrat now that he has stepped onto the partisan stage.
North Carolina’s 2nd District is more Democratic than Utah’s 4th District (30 percent of the vote went to Obama) and North Carolina’s 7th District (40 percent), where the incumbents are retiring, and less Democratic than Georgia’s 12th District and Minnesota’s 7th District, where Obama had 44 percent.
The natural question is whether Aiken’s celebrity profile gives him unique crossover appeal. The answer is probably not. Last fall, I spoke with former Minnesota candidate Patty Wetterling, who started her congressional campaign in 2004 with a reservoir of name identification and goodwill as a child safety advocate after her son was abducted in 1989. But that didn’t translate into electoral success.
“Once I became a candidate, 50 percent automatically didn’t like me,” Wetterling recalled . “I was surprised. I was naive. But I was also altruistic in my reasons for doing it.”
Aiken must quickly prove that he is an independent, conservative Democrat beyond getting appointed to a commission by President George W. Bush. Let’s also not ignore the elephant in the room. Aiken is gay at a time when the seven openly gay members of the House represent districts that Obama carried with an average of 58 percent, and none of them represent a district won by Romney.