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The Daily Tar Heel

American Idol star turned politician Clay Aiken trails in N.C. district

And he’s faced an uphill battle in a congressional contest where the odds are stacked against him.

Aiken, a Democrat, is running against Republican incumbent Rep. Renee Ellmers for the seat representing the state’s 2nd Congressional District, a sprawling area that encompasses Asheboro, Fort Bragg, Pinehurst and parts of Cary.

The two candidates will debate in Pinehurst on Monday, less than a month before Election Day, in what many analysts consider to be one of Aiken’s last chances to convince voters he’s the better candidate.

“When people see him, they’re curious about him because he’s a celebrity, but they’re impressed with how smart he is,” said Democratic analyst Gary Pearce.

Aiken and Ellmers, a two-term incumbent, are campaigning in a notoriously right-leaning district — and Aiken’s claim to fame likely won’t be enough to win him the seat.

“Right now, he’s trailing,” said Ferrel Guillory, UNC professor of journalism and director of the Program on Public Life. “He’s got to make a good showing in the debate.”

A poll released Tuesday by the right-leaning Civitas Institute found Ellmers in the lead, with 47 percent of the district saying they will vote for Ellmers, while 39 percent say they’ll vote for Aiken.

Ellmers is a very personable figure among voters in her district, said Kathryn Walker, chairwoman of UNC College Republicans.

“She’s a mom, she comes from a working background, and I think she’s really relatable,” she said. “People in Congress have a stereotype of being out of touch, and I don’t think that she is.”

Ellmers gained national media attention for comments she made during a panel discussion in July about women lawmakers.

“We need our male colleagues to understand that if you can bring it down to a woman’s level — and what everything that she is balancing in her life — that’s the way to go,” she said, according to the Washingon Examiner.

In a statement to left-leaning blog ThinkProgress, Ellmers said her comments had been taken out of context.

“I am a woman and find it both offensive and sexist to take my words and redefine them to imply that women need to be addressed at a lower level,” she said.

Walker said Ellmers is opposed to the Affordable Care Act, a position that will likely win her favor among many conservative voters.

Guillory said Aiken is an underdog because he is a gay man running in a conservative and rural part of North Carolina.

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But Andy Ball, third vice chair of the N.C. Democratic Party, said Aiken offers the independent voice that Congress needs.

Blake Brennan, treasurer of UNC Young Democrats, said Aiken likely has an edge with young voters.

“He’s much closer to our age than almost anyone in Congress,” he said. “He’s more in touch with social issues.”

Ball, who previously worked with Aiken at a Raleigh YMCA, said the Democratic challenger has long-standing ties in the state.

“He’s proven that he has roots in the area and that he understands the working family,” he said.

Ellmers has taken recent stands on veterans affairs and immigration, calling on the Senate to pass legislation to address the recent influx of migrant children to the U.S.

“I would hope that the voters vote for what she stands for,” Walker said.

Guillory said it’s clear from listening to Aiken that he is trying to convince voters he understands their issues, which is necessary, he said, because Aiken has to win over military, farming and suburban families.

“He’s trying to convince voters that he’s not some uninformed singer,” Guillory said, “that he can relate his personal history to the down-home people of the 2nd District.”

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