The Runner-Up Episode 2: Go for the Jugular

Clay Aiken is not a fan of the grunt work involved in campaigning on the Runner-Up.
The Runner-Up (Photo: Lightbox Entertainment / Esquire)

On this week’s episode of The Runner-Up, congressional candidate Clay Aiken looks ahead to the general election, but struggles with “politics as usual.”The second episode of The Runner-Up picks up a few weeks after Clay Aiken’s victory in the 2014 North Carolina 2nd District primary. Don’t worry about the characters from last week’s episode–Clay has a brand new campaign team including campaign manager Ellen Zeng and finance manager Nick Leisey. This week’s episode focuses on Clay preparing for a debate with his opponent Congresswoman Renee Ellmers. Along with the prep, we learn some of the nitty gritty of what it is like to be on the campaign trail when all politics is local.

“Every question: how am I going to slap her before I answer it?”

One of the struggles central to this week’s episode is Clay’s reluctance to engage in politics as usual. He hates the bickering, the backbiting, and the blustering that happens throughout anything remotely political. Unfortunately, a political debate is antithetical to Clay’s vision of how he wants government. In an early prep session, he tries to answer questions without engaging his opponent, but he comes across as a know-it-all. When he listens to various ad hominems and non sequitors from his opponent, Clay fails to resist rolling his eyes. His advisers tell him his goal is to generate a reaction from his opponent and to get the electorate to fire her. Every answer needs to have some nugget of vitriol, otherwise Clay is wasting valuable time. How is a guy whose brand is based largely on his likable personality supposed to proceed?

“Screw being optimistic…all I’m doing is raising money.”

Campaigns are won and lost based on how much money is raised. Ellen informs us that a successful campaign of this nature would require $1.8 million. Clay and co. has raised less than $800,000 with a little over two months to go. Part of the problem is that Clay is reluctant to use his contacts from his American Idol and Celebrity Apprentice days, mainly because he wants to combat the image that he has gotten bored after going Hollywood. This also means Clay doesn’t want to bank on his pipes, even though his foundation the National Inclusion Project has blossomed using such tactics. Instead, we see Clay phoning potential donors in what is referred to as “call time.” Unfortunately, Ellen tells us “call time” should clock in at 40+ hours a week1 and Clay is not anywhere close to those hours. He does host a fundraiser with guests Ruben Studdard and Fantasia, so he hasn’t completely severed ties with Idol.

“Don’t be a snippy little diva.”

The dynamics discussed in the debate prep show just how fine a line Clay–or any candidate, really–has to walk:

  • Male/Female: if he comes across as too aggressive, voters may view him as a bully.
  • Southern propriety: Clay needs to be a gentleman or he risks getting Bless Your Heart’d.
  • Democrat/Republican: the second district is gerrymandered to be Republican-leaning.
  • Older/Younger: this ties in with southern propriety, but he has to respect his elder or someone will cut a switch.

Clay asks if the gay card gives him a pass, but Ellen tells him to 1) not frame it as a “pass”, and 2) not really.2 As the final debate prep gets underway, Clay finds himself feeling hamstrung because every answer has to be perfectly balanced.

“…as an entertainer…”

The producers of The Runner-Up filmed three groups of potential voters–democrats, republicans, and undecideds–watching the debate as it aired in early September. Clay has to battle extreme nerves while answering the first question while Ellmers condescends to her opponent every chance she can, prefacing every response with “As an entertainer, you fail to understand…” The tone does not go unnoticed by the home audiences, and it may have contributed to the “really, queen?” shade thrown Ellmers’ way when she tries to brand the “Aiken/Obama Economy.” From the clips we see, Aiken performed well and held his own in the debate.

The episode ends with Clay and his team reading news reports and internet comments about the debate. The gap between the candidates is closing, going from 17 points to 8 points (in a Republican poll!).

Next time on The Runner-Up: Clay has to court the fringe voters (ain’t no party like the Tea Party) and gay rights comes to the fore.

  1. A full-time job.  
  2. Keep in mind, a gay marriage ban was passed in North Carolina a couple years prior.  

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About Mike McComb 1069 Articles
Mike has been writing about TV online since 2008, when he started the blog WTF Little House on the Prairie? The blog was a project to practice writing about television analytically prior to getting an MA in Television-Radio-Film from Syracuse University, or as he likes to call it "TV Camp." After a lengthy stint at TVLatest, Mike wanted to launch a site that brought in classic TV, diamonds in the rough, and the shows everybody watches. E-mail: