Aiken Highlights Odd State of NC Politics

by David Pferdekamper

Aiken highlights odd state of NC politics

Well, North Carolina, how did we find ourselves here? I remember watching news about the 2003 gubernatorial recall election in California, and thinking how surreal it was to see Arnold Schwarzenegger — a celebrity then known for killing aliens and robots, making mediocre comedy blockbusters, and being the best part of the worst Batman film — ascend to the governorship.

People still mock Schwarzenegger for getting involved in politics so directly. After all, what does an actor and body builder know about running a state? It’s not my prerogative to judge Schwarzenegger’s governing abilities. What’s more important is to acknowledge the odd state of California politics at the time. Gray Davis was just the second governor in the history of the United States to be successfully recalled. Only in such an unusual climate, with such a disillusioned electorate, could Schwarzenegger have hoped to be taken seriously.

If you’ve been paying attention to NC state politics, you might have noticed that Clay Aiken might just be on his way to pulling an Arnie. After releasing his first campaign ad in his bid for the second congressional district seat earlier this month, a whole lot of people are beginning to take the former reality television star seriously.

Aiken’s personal and heartfelt ad recounts his difficult childhood, focusing on his experiences seeking refuge from his abusive father with his mother and living with low-income and few possessions. He talks about his passions for helping others who are less fortunate, and connects it to his experiences with UNICEF and special presidential commission under George Bush to address the educational challenges of children with special needs. He manages to bring up thoughtful criticism of incumbent Renee Ellmers.

It is, as most of the internet will tell you, a very good ad. As I mentioned earlier, people are taking the musician very seriously.

In fact, the video went viral on social media, blogs and news sites just a few hours after being uploaded. Within a week it had half a million views on YouTube. In just over a week, the campaign had received over $100,000 in donations. Of that, 70 percent came in the form of online donations with an average of $49 per donation.

Of course, the video continues to get views and the Aiken campaign continues to get donations. The candidate has certainly gotten a lot of positive attention.

You can draw your own conclusions about whether the second district is better off keeping Ellmers as their representative or replacing her. Either way, the large splash that Aiken has made in such a small amount of time is indicative of a climate that ought to have the “real” politicians worried.

Of course, most of them probably won’t worry. Aiken has an uphill battle. He’s running as a Democrat in a very conservative district — a district that voted for Mitt Romney by a margin of 18 points over Barack Obama in 2012. On top of that, it can be hard for an openly gay politician to win electoral support. Not to mention he still has a primary to compete in. Aiken’s low chances will more than likely keep the politicians calm, despite his initial burst of popularity.

The issue is, though, that it doesn’t matter whether Aiken wins or loses. The fact that a former “American Idol” candidate can be taken seriously as a congressional candidate should be grabbing the attention of every politician in the state. If this is the way politics are evolving in our state, our leaders have an extremely foreign world to adapt to.

“I’m not a politician; I don’t ever want to be one,” Aiken says in his ad. While some might think these are campaign words without much substance, not being a politician used to be a bad thing to bring up in a political campaign. Even though politicians have continually been disliked, the shift to electorates preferring outsiders is relatively new in our history.

Aiken is the most recent entry in that shift. His candidacy represents a new political arena in our state, just as Schwarzenegger’s election represented a new political arena in California.

NC POLITICS: Don’t sleep on Aiken

Ironically, while mocking Aiken’s bid, Ellmers managed to mock herself and point out the issue that modern day politicians are facing.

“I guess we don’t have a very high approval rating, so I guess the bar has been lowered for him,” said Ellmers in a recent radio interview on a Washington-based station. The implication she didn’t explicitly acknowledge, of course, is that she and her colleagues — on both sides of the aisle — are the ones that lowered the bar.

Ellmers can continue to mock Aiken, but while her best criticism of him so far is that he was the runner up on “American Idol,” Aiken manages to present a litany of reasons why Ellmers’s voting record has been bad for North Carolinians. Without agreeing or disagreeing with him, it’s obvious that Ellmers needs to take this a bit more seriously.

We live in a world where a lot of people get their news from entertainment programs and Facebook, while news programs adopt the standards of entertainment programs. Politicians act like Hollywood celebrities to remain relevant in the digital era and celebrities get involved in politics, forcing politicians to act more like them.

You can love it or hate it, but there it is. Politics and entertainment are not as separate as they once were. As Aiken’s campaign gets more attention and respect, NC politicians need to keep that in mind. They might laugh at Aiken. Aiken may very well lose. Even so, there’s a lesson here for our leaders. If they’re smart, they’ll stop laughing and start paying attention.

After all, I’m sure California politi- cians wish they had taken Schwar- zenegger seriously.