The Runner-Up Episode 3: Into the Belly of the Beast

Clay Aiken gets ready for a campaign appearance on Esquire's The Runner-Up
The Runner-Up (Photo: Lightbox Entertainment / Esquire)

This week’s episode of The Runner-Up brings up the alleged elephant in the room: Clay Aiken’s sexual orientation.

This week’s episode of The Runner-Up brings up the alleged elephant in the room: Clay Aiken’s sexual orientation. As you may know Aiken is gay, which, like his eye and hair color, has not been a part of his political platform in his run for North Carolina’s 2nd congressional seat. With three weeks to go before the election, Clay has decided on doing a bus tour of the district to get to know the constituents. Meanwhile, Amendment 1, a constitutional ban on gay marriage voted on in the 2012 election, has just been overturned by the North Carolina Supreme Court.1 Like it or not, Clay is forced to address the issue at his appearances, which are challenging enough as a moderate democrat in a republican district.

What political lessons were we able to glean from the candidate this week?

The DCCC Gets a C-

Much like in last week’s episode, fundraising is a major concern for the Clay Aiken campaign. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, a national group designed to help candidates within the party win elections, has set fundraising goals for the Aiken campaign to gauge viability. Although the campaign has struggled to meet those goals, the objectives are met only to have the goalposts move a little bit further down the field. Ultimately, Clay wants to appear on the DCCC’s Red to Blue list of seats that are up for grabs. Keep in mind, 2014 was a drubbing for the democrats, so the DCCC had to focus on keeping current seats blue before trying to turn red seats. However, Clay did have a point when he called out the DCCC for stringing him along, drawing the analogy of Lucy yanking the football away from Charlie Brown. The relationship ends with Clay hanging up on his DCCC rep mid-sentence.

Get on the Bus

Since the campaign isn’t raising enough money for ads, Clay wants to travel through the very-oddly shaped district to meet with voters and the people he will represent. His campaign manager Ellen thinks this is a terrible idea (Clay should be fundraising), but Clay says he would rather lose doing the campaign in the style he wants to do it. The 21-day tour gets off to…about as much of a start as one could hope in a mid-term campaign for a candidate with very little chance of winning. The first stop has a couple dozen people, many of them staff and volunteers, plus a tracker. A tracker is someone who works for the opposite side and records everything a candidate does in the hopes of capturing a major blunder so that it goes viral. Clay tells us he has no problems with cameras watching his every move thanks to American Idol (and probably this documentary), but the video of tens of people at a rally is not going to get Renee Ellmers to shake in her boots.


NC-2 is drawn to be a republican district. As a result, Clay has learned some harsh truths about politics. First, many people he has encountered will be voting for the republican because s/he has an R following their name. Clay lectures one voter at a county fair about not talking about the issues, which is a cringey moment even though it ends with him telling the voter he knows she is never going to vote for him. At least the tracker wasn’t there? Clay also shares that the only people that come up to talk to him are the people who are already planning on voting for him, so there isn’t an opportunity to convince someone who is sitting on the fence…if those people exist anymore.

As he laments the disappearance of moderates in government, we learn that part of Clay’s strategy is to bridge the gap as much as possible with his republican counterparts. This includes participating in a panel with the Tea Party of Moore County. He opens with a joke about why on earth he is in the room that goes over like a lead balloon.2 To make watching this less uncomfortable, I strongly suggest treating it like a community forum scene from Parks and Recreation. In his closing, Clay plays up the point that he was present and participating in the forum, unlike the elected representative who has claimed to be a Tea Party supporter though her actions have not always lined up with the group.

Identity Politics

Clay’s bus tour coincides with the North Carolina Pride festival, which he chooses not to attend. Although he is a candidate who happens to be gay, Aiken is adamant that LGBT issues are not central to his campaign. He goes so far as to say he is offended by the supposition, even though he points out in an interview that he would be the first out congressperson from the south were he to win. That doesn’t stop people asking him for his thoughts about the recent overturning of Amendment 1. Although his personal reaction has been positive, his political reaction can best be described as clumsy. He refers to the issue as “not yet settled” and defers to the eventual Supreme Court case.3 Even as a non-answer, it does not come across as particularly polished.

Next week on The Runner-Up: Political ads! Election day! The bus gets towed?!

  1. Yay!  
  2. To be fair, I sat in on a democratic public forum once where each candidate was asked whether or not they were now or ever in the John Birch Society, so the pendulum swings both ways.  
  3. April 28, y’all!  

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About Mike McComb 1225 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: