Very unlikely. I really enjoy Bill Maher, but I had not heard of his “flip a district” campaign (nice story in the Post about Maher’s political efforts, including this flip a district initiative) to choose a single GOP House district to flip to blue until earlier this week when I received an email about writing a piece in a series about the potentially-targeted districts. I talked to the series editor at Huffington Post and was assured that there would not have to be any agenda to my analysis and it would be quite alright to tell Maher and his viewers to find a better district to flip. I did. This is also at HuffPo, but I’m going to put the whole thing here, too.
The race in North Carolina’s second district pitting incumbent second-term Republican, Renee Ellmers against former American Idol star and political neophyte, Clay Aiken, has made it into Bill Maher’s “flip a district” final four. The hope is that by bringing in large amounts of media attention and a cash infusion, the chosen district can be flipped from red to blue. While this may be a viable plan against certain Republican incumbents, the view from here says that the efforts (and money) of Maher and his fans would be better spent elsewhere. While Ellmers is not overwhelmingly popular and has made her share of mis-steps (i.e., Congress may need to dumb things down to speak “on a woman’s level;” “I need my paycheck“), there is little reason at this point to believe Aiken will be able to claim this seat.
Back when Aiken declared his candidacy in February, I wrote,
“Aiken will make a strong challenger, but absent significant mistakes by Ellmers, I have a tough time seeing him win this district. I can’t help but wonder if he sees this as an opportunity to prove himself a capable politician before going for something more winnable (my colleague Mike Cobb suggests this seat is very winnable in a presidential year) in 2016.”
Well, we haven’t seen any substantial mistakes or problems for Ellmers. The other feature which could have potentially put Aiken over the top would be a Democratic wave. I did not even mention that in February as there was no reason to see that coming and at this point we can say with near certainty there will be no such wave.
In 2010, riding the Republican Tea Party wave, Ellmers eked out a surprise and super-narrow victory over Democratic incumbent Bob Etheridge (who likely did himself in with his infamous “who are you?!” response to an ambush video). This was great timing for Ellmers. Normally, she would have been a top Democratic target in the next election for what had been a true swing district. Instead, the North Carolina legislature re-drew her district in 2011 to make it reliably Republican. In 2012, not surprisingly, Ellmers cruised to an easy victory.
Clay Aiken’s decision to enter the race early this year threw an interesting curve into matters. Generally speaking, a major reason that safe incumbents (of which Ellmers is generally considered) stay safe is because they do not attract strong challengers. Though Aiken has no previous political experience, his extensive name recognition, the fundraising ability that goes along with that, and natural telegenic appeal make him an unusually strong challenger for a basically scandal-free incumbent in a safe district. That said, his campaign has largely dropped off the radar from local media and his fundraising has been adequate, but not particularly impressive.
In recent years, the Democratic party has become more dependent upon young voters and non-white voters while the Republican party has become more dependent upon older voters and white voters. While this works out well for Democrats in presidential election years, in mid-term years young and minority voters disproportionately drop out from the electorate. Democrats across the country are fighting mightily against this dynamic, but it is pretty well-established and their best hope is to keep the drop-off from being as bad as it was in 2010.
For Clay Aiken, or most any Democratic challenger, to win in a Republican district, a not-too-bad Democratic year is simply not good enough. Aiken needs a really good Democratic year to overcome Ellmer’s advantages in a distinctly Republican district that has voted 10 points more Republican in presidential elections than the average district. However the November midterms end up being characterized, “a really good Democratic year” does not seem at all in the cards.
Publicly-released polling in this race has been virtually non-existent, but the Rothenberg and Cook political reports both seem to have enough information to consider the seat safely in Ellmers’ hands. The large infusion of media attention and, presumably, cash, that would come with being the final target chosen by Bill Maher’s Flip a District campaign could very likely make a difference in certain, reasonably close, Congressional races. Given the current state of the race in NC-2, however, it seems that this presumed windfall of cash and media would be substantially more likely to actually affect the result in a more competitive district. I’m not going to write off Clay Aiken’s political career by any means, but he will likely have a much better chance of flipping this district in 2016 when the demographic composition of the electorate is likely to be much more favorable to Democrats.
This piece also appeared in the Huffington Post