Aiken Treads Celebrity Footsteps to Congress

Pop star, American Idol runner-up and activist Clay Aiken announces his bid for a North Carolina congressional seat.Congress already has a comic, now a pop singer is trying to join him. American Idol runner-up Clay Aiken has announced a bid for a North Carolina congressional seat.

People snickered when Al Franken entered politics, but it was no joke when he rode his comic reputation on Saturday Night Live and a syndicated political talk show to victory over incumbent Minnesota Senator Norm Coleman in 2008.

Skeptics doubt whether Aiken, despite his high-profile discovery on American Idol, music tours and bestselling book, can win a congressional seat in North Carolina, where he was born, grew up and eventually became a special education teacher in Raleigh. The skepticism centers on Aiken's political affiliation, activism and announcement in 2008 that he gay.

Some detractors also point out ‑ he is a perpetual loser, including being the runner-up in the fifth season of The Celebrity Apprentice in 2012.

But the Aiken story may not be so simplistic. Before he broke through on American Idol, Aiken, who grew up as a "proud Southern Baptist," specialized in contemporary Christian music. Christian Music Planet labeled Aiken an "American Idol Christian" in 2004. Some of his most popular work is on Christmas albums.

Aiken has a son who was born in North Carolina in 2008 and, in Southern tradition, was given his grandmother's maiden name, Foster, as his first name. The boy's mother is the sister of the producer of three of Aiken's albums.

In addition to the people interested in seeing a pop star at their local library, Aiken may be able to draw political support from his activism on behalf of AIDS prevention, gender equity and programs such as Toys for Tots. Aiken is credited with founding the National Inclusion Project that runs summer camps for children with physical and mental disabilities. President George W. Bush appointed Aiken to a presidential commission dealing with people with intellectual disabilities.

North Carolina's second congressional district seat is held by Republican Renee Ellmers, who in 2010 captured the seat, formerly a Democratic stronghold. Aiken, 35, has two Democratic primary opponents to defeat before he gets a chance to challenge Ellmers, chair of the GOP Women's Policy Committee.

Even though the district is evenly split with 36 percent Democrats and 36 percent Republicans, voters reflect a more conservative point of view. Mitt Romney captured 58 percent of the vote in the district in the 2012 election.

Aiken certainly isn’t the first, nor will he be the last, celebrity to run for Congress. Fred Grandy parlayed his Love Boat fame into an Iowa congressional seat and Sonny Bono’s helped catapult him to a seat in Congress representing Palm Springs. Attorney Fred Thompson, who played an attorney on Law & Order, represented Kentucky in the Senate. All were Republicans. 

Well-known football players and coaches have had mixed success at the ballot box. Star Pittsburgh Steeler Lynn Swann lost his 2006 bid to become governor of Pennsylvania, legendary Nebraska football coach Tom Osborne made it to Congress in 2000, only to lose a subsequent bid for governor. Hall of Fame Seattle Seahawks receiver Steve Largent was elected to Congress from Oklahoma in 1994 and eight years later lost an election for governor. They all were Republicans.

The celebrity who rose the highest was Ronald Reagan, and he was also a Republican.

In addition to Franken, Aiken could find inspiration from Ben Jones, a Democrat who leveraged — or perhaps overcame — his role as Cooter on the Dukes of Hazzard to represent a district in Georgia in Congress.