RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Former "American Idol" runner-up Clay Aiken announced Monday he's running for Congress again in North Carolina, this time seeking to succeed the retiring U.S. Rep. David Price.
In a video announcing his bid in the 6th District, Aiken said he's joining the already crowded field for the Democratic primary, which has been delayed from March to mid-May due to litigation.
Aiken, 43, has had a career in music, theater and reality shows — in addition to political and social activism — since finishing second to Ruben Studdard on the TV singing contest in 2003.
"Hey, folks. It's been awhile. Now, I know I look a little different these days, but we've met before," he says in the video.
Aiken won the Democratic nomination for a largely rural central congressional district in 2014, edging former state Commerce Secretary Keith Crisco. But he lost in the general election to then-Republican incumbent Renee Ellmers, receiving 41% of the vote.
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While that district was comfortably Republican, the proposed 6th District that Aiken is running in is overwhelmingly Democratic. It includes all of Orange and Durham counties — home to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Duke University, and very affluent western Wake County.
The high-tech Research Triangle Park is within the 6th District and where Price has been serving almost continuously since 1987.
Aiken, who grew up in North Carolina and now lives in the Raleigh area, said he'd work to promote inclusion, provide free, high-quality health care and fight climate change.
"As a loud and proud Democrat, I intend to use my voice to deliver real results for North Carolina families, just like David Price has done for decades," Aiken said in a news release.
The 6th District primary winner would almost assuredly win the general election. The state's congressional map is being challenged in court as an illegal gerrymander, however, meaning the lines could be altered and candidates may reconsider the district in which they could run. But any Triangle-area district should favor a Democrat.
Announced 6th District Democratic primary candidates include state Sens. Valerie Foushee of Orange County and Wiley Nickel of Wake County; Durham County Commissioner Nida Allam; and virologist Richard Watkins.
Aiken, who would be the first openly LGBTQ person elected to Congress from the South if he won in November, said he would provide a counterweight in state politics to hardline Republicans such as Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson and U.S. Rep. Madison Cawthorn. Many Democrats have called on Robinson to resign for comments he's made about sex education in schools that critics say disparaged LGBTQ people.
"As Democrats, we have got to get better about speaking up and using our voices, because those folks ain't quieting down anytime soon," Aiken says in the video.
Aiken said it was Price who helped him get interested in politics as a child. He told The News & Observer of Raleigh that when his eighth grade middle-school class studied the 1992 election, Aiken asked his teacher if he could invite a politician to speak, and contacted Price, who agreed.
Aiken's celebrity status is not quite as strong as it was eight years ago, and he still has not served in elected office before, Meredith College political science professor David McLennan said in an interview Monday. But Aiken proved to be a credible candidate in 2014 and could benefit in the primary from efforts to link himself to Price, he said.
The top two vote-getters would advance to a runoff if the leading candidate does not receive more than 30% of the vote.
The 10 Senate seats most likely to flip in 2022
6. North Carolina
7. New Hampshire
Interactive: 10 Senate seats most likely to flip
Analysis: Virginia election results show Dems falling behind in battle for Senate
"A lot happens in a year." It's a favorite phrase for politicos who don't like the way the winds are blowing.
A year ago, it was Republicans saying that. Democrats had just celebrated winning the White House and holding the House, albeit with a slimmer majority than anyone had expected. (Securing the narrow Senate majority would come a couple of months later.)
But last week's gubernatorial results in Virginia and New Jersey now have Democrats getting behind the mantra as they hope the national environment is more favorable to them this time next year. Republicans already had history on their side heading into 2022, and they're feeling increasingly energized by President Joe Biden's slipping approval ratings. One year out from the midterms, 58% of Americans say Biden hasn't paid enough attention to the nation's most important problems, and a majority disapprove of the way he's handling his job, according to a new CNN Poll released Tuesday.
Biden's party still had a small advantage on the generic congressional ballot among registered voters in the CNN Poll, but the five most competitive Senate seats are all in states that Biden carried by much smaller margins than he won in Virginia (10 points): Pennsylvania (1.2 points), Georgia (0.3 point), Wisconsin (0.6 point), Arizona (0.4 point) and Nevada (2.4 points).
And despite missing out on what would have been their top recruit -- when New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu announced on Tuesday that he would not run for the Senate -- Republicans are bullish on winning the Granite State, which Biden carried by a more comfortable 7 points last year. They're even seriously talking up Colorado, which Biden won by 13.5 points -- more than Virginia but less than New Jersey, which he carried by nearly 16 points.
Of course, the unspoken factor in all this calculating is candidates. With former President Donald Trump drawing Republicans in Senate primaries to the right, there likely won't be a bunch of Glenn Youngkin-like candidates on the ballot next November. Virginia's Republican governor-elect charted a course to winning back the suburbs without alienating Trump's base that could very well work for some candidates in 2022 -- but that's only if they become the nominees. Youngkin was nominated at a party convention that doesn't look much like the Trump loyalty contests that are today's GOP primaries. And beyond perpetuating unfounded claims about election fraud, some of the former President's chosen candidates are facing serious scrutiny over their personal lives.
That's one reason why Pennsylvania -- where one of those candidates is running -- remains the seat most likely to flip partisan control, as it has been all year. GOP Sen. Pat Toomey is retiring, giving Democrats their best pickup opportunity. The 10 Senate seats most likely to flip are based on CNN's reporting and fundraising data, as well as historical data about how states and candidates have performed. As the cycle heats up, more polling and advertising spending data will become factors.
While Republicans grapple with what their future looks like with Trump out of the White House but still very much engaged in politics, some Democrats have been raising huge sums of money as they fight to hold the Senate. That's especially true for the newest incumbents -- Sens. Raphael Warnock of Georgia and Mark Kelly of Arizona, who are running for full six-year terms next fall. Two incumbents first elected in 2016 -- Sens. Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire and Catherine Cortez Masto -- have raised comparatively less money but could be facing contests just as competitive next fall.
After Pennsylvania, the next three seats on the list -- Georgia, Wisconsin and Arizona -- remain unchanged. But things have shifted in the middle of the pack, with Nevada sliding above North Carolina and, now that Sununu is not running, above New Hampshire too.
Despite Americans' concerns about the economy, the administration did get a double dose of good news at the end of last week, with an encouraging October jobs report and House passage of the infrastructure bill. Democrats are optimistic about passing the President's broader social safety net and climate bill in the coming weeks, too, but it'll be up to them and the President to sell it -- especially if the benefits of the two plans won't be fully tangible before November 2022. There's the risk of those measures being overshadowed by headlines like this week's about surging prices.
That there's still a year to go "might be the only sliver of good news for Democrats," Nathan Gonzales wrote in Inside Elections about the aftermath of Virginia and New Jersey. Indeed, as one Democratic strategist noted, the pandemic wasn't even on anyone's radar at this point in the 2020 cycle -- so yes, a lot can change in a year. But the clock is ticking.