Roll Call: Latest News on Capitol Hill, Congress, Politics and Elections
February 11, 2016

Ratings Update: North Carolina’s 2nd District

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.

Until Democrats demonstrate that this is a serious contest, we’re maintaining the Rothenberg Political Report/Roll Call rating of the race as Safe Republican.

  • oyharward

    I do not believe North Carolinians are ready to support an open Homosexual in public elections.

    ”Aiken, who came out as gay in September 2008, has spoken out about politics in recent years, focusing mainly on gay rights issues.”

  • Ted77

    Reality check, their are more closeted homosexuals living in North Carolina than you think and would be willing to give Clay Aiken a shot at representing them. The illusion that North Carolina or it’s 2nd district will never change is just that. Keep in mind that demographics are working against the Republicans at the rate of about 1.5 to 2.3% per election cycle while the demographics are working in the Democrats favor.

    • nathanlgonzales

      Even if everything you’re saying is true, that puts Aiken in great shape for 2018 or 2020.

  • Frank Roche

    Rep Ellmers has a tough primary challenge first. Now is the time to show Republicans can keep their own accountable for their votes and their campaign talk. The 2nd District demands qualified leadership.

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