Clay Aiken Running for Congress as Defense Hawk

Clay Aiken Running for Congress as Defense Hawk
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Former "American Idol" contestant Clay Aiken -- the openly gay congressional candidate aiming to unseat Republican Rep. Renee Ellmers in November -- may be a political novice, but he's apparently astute in at least one regard: The North Carolina Democrat has staked out hawkish positions on defense spending.

In his first campaign video, he criticized Ellmers for voting in favor of “massive cuts to the military” that were “bad for our country and our district.” He accused the congresswoman of voting “against the best interests of North Carolina military families and those who depend on the military for their jobs.”

The votes Aiken is referencing came last March, when Ellmers backed a continuing resolution that kept sequestration cuts in place, and this past fall, when budget votes tied to defunding or delaying the health care law led to the partial government shutdown. (Ellmers campaign spokeswoman Jessica Wood told RealClearPolitics that the second-term lawmaker in fact voted to keep the government open. While technically true, the legislation she supported was a non-starter in the Democratic-controlled Senate, which resisted the GOP push on Obamacare.)

Aiken’s defense message could play well in the Tar Heel State, which is home to 750,000 veterans. The 2nd Congressional District, which the singer hopes to wrest from Ellmers if he can first win the Democratic nomination, includes Fort Bragg, one of the largest military installations in the country. Some 63,000 military personnel are assigned to the base, which also employs around 11,000 civilians. More than a quarter-million people use services provided by the installation, and sequestration budget cuts have disproportionately affected the Army, which is heavily concentrated at Fort Bragg.

Apart from his stance on military spending, the political newcomer has eschewed concrete policy positions on other issues. For example, he has chosen not to focus on same-sex marriage, referring to it as “a settled issue” in a state that recently passed a constitutional amendment outlawing gay marriage. (Aiken had previously been an outspoken proponent of such unions.)

Instead, the onetime reality-TV celebrity has emphasized his biography. In his campaign video, the 2003 “Idol” runner-up discusses growing up in North Carolina with an abusive father and later working as a special education teacher. He also highlights his bipartisan credentials, noting that he was “appointed by President Bush to serve on a special presidential commission to address the educational challenges of children with special needs.”

The latter reference has also provided Aiken with a platform for lobbing further criticism at the incumbent’s record: He bemoaned “cuts to childcare for 5,000 children who live on [the Fort Bragg] base, cuts to medical and dental clinics, and to counseling and survivor outreach for families of fallen warriors.”

In a statement released after Aiken announced his candidacy, Ellmers asserted that voters in her district “are unlikely to send a liberal to Washington who will further the President's agenda.” She added that “the real issues that need to be addressed” include Obamacare and economic growth.

However, the congresswoman has also poked fun at her potential opponent’s celebrity. During a radio interview conducted before he announced his run, she mocked Aiken’s singing abilities and suggested that he entered the race because “his performing career isn’t going so well and he’s bored.”

Despite taking aim at Ellmers, Aiken must first win his party’s nomination. Some local Democrats reportedly have scoffed at the idea of an openly gay pop star running for a rural seat in a Southern state dominated by Republicans, and many have rallied around former North Carolina Secretary of Commerce Keith Crisco. (Aiken’s staff was able to convince one Democratic opponent to drop out of the race to clear the way for their candidate. Another potential primary opponent, licensed counselor Toni Morris of Fayetteville, has stayed in the race thus far.)

If he does win the Democratic nod, a much steeper climb remains. Ellmers has never been considered especially vulnerable, and most political handicappers have predicted that the seat -- safer for Republicans after GOP-led redistricting -- is unlikely to flip.

And despite Aiken’s overture to conservative voters on defense spending, partisan positions on that issue have blurred in recent years. The ascendant libertarian wing of the Republican Party has called for cuts throughout government, including from the once sacrosanct military budget.

However, Aiken may have a trump card to play: One study indicates that “American Idol” viewers are more likely to be Republican than viewers of any other reality television program. And there are still millions of “Idol” viewers (though the 35-year-old singer has acknowledged that he is no longer one of them).

Adam O'Neal is a political reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at aoneal@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @RealClearAdam.

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