Teddy Turner has the perfect dog for a Republican outsider. Suki, a black and white working spaniel, waits eagerly at the front door of Turner's Mt. Pleasant home to greet guests when they arrive. With her mottled fur, she looks like she might be a mix, but Turner assures me she's a purebred.
The working spaniel, he explains, differs from the show-dog cocker spaniel because it was bred for hunting prowess and not for conformity to an aesthetic standard. The result? "They're actually smart," Turner says.
In the crowded race for the U.S. House District 1 Republican nomination, Turner sells himself as a fresh face on the political scene, untainted by Washington culture and special interests. An underdog, even. "Not being a career politician gives you an ability to look at this completely from the outside," Turner says. "You're not beholden to anybody, you don't have any set ideas, you don't have any groups that you have to cater to." As the son of CNN founder and former Atlanta Braves owner Ted Turner, and with a history of sales and marketing positions at CMT and TBS, Teddy has deep pockets and deep connections in the media business, but the campaign for SC-1 is his first foray into politics.
Not that Turner isn't plugging himself right into the political machine. One of his campaign advisors, Chris Drummond, previously helped Mark Sanford win the SC-1 seat in 1994 and served as his communications director in the governor's mansion from 2002 to 2005. This time, though, Drummond says he turned down Sanford's request to help him reclaim the House seat. "It's the normal question I ask candidates: 'Why do you want to run?'" Drummond says. Drummond won't repeat the answer he got from Sanford, but he'll put it this way: "I'm not sure he's in it for the right reason." As for Turner, he says, "I find it extremely refreshing he doesn't have canned responses."
Turner will need some compelling non-canned answers to defeat Sanford, whom Politico dubbed the Republican frontrunner because of his financial war chest and name recognition. And he's going to have to play ball against some friends, too. According to Turner, SC-1 Republican foe John Kuhn's daughter is a friend of Turner's daughter, opponent Chip Limehouse's daughter was on a sailing team that Turner coached, and Sanford's daddy is a good pal of Turner's pop.
But despite his outsider status, Turner's platform isn't all that different from many other Republicans. Climate change? "We can't work on the environment if we don't have any money." Marriage equality? "It's a local issue." Foreign policy? "The problem is, is that there are people all over the world that hate us, for whatever reason. So can we let our guard down? Can we pull our guys off the wall standing watch?"
When it comes to the debt crisis, Turner says the solution is fairly simple: Announce that 10-percent cuts must be made across the board, and let the heads of government agencies decide where to trim their own fat. When asked if the 10-percent cut would apply to the U.S.'s highest-in-the-world military spending, a $716 billion annual burden that's larger than the next 13 highest-spending nations' combined, Turner hedges a little. "The military budget, to me, would be one of the last things that I want to cut," he says.
Turner says his father, an outspoken environmentalist and supporter of universal healthcare, often asks him why he became such a conservative. Part of the answer surely lies in his education: Turner graduated in 1985 from the Citadel, a school that Turner says "makes you be pro-military." After school, he spent two years as a CNN reporter in the Gorbachov-era Soviet Union, an experience that further shaped his politics.
While living in the USSR, Turner suffered a car crash that shattered the bones in his face and knocked out his bottom teeth. As a result, he spent some time in a woefully under-supplied Soviet hospital with his jaws wired shut, watching in horror as doctors reused syringes and IV bags during the early years of the AIDS pandemic.
When it comes to healthcare in the U.S., Turner calls the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act "a prime example of overreach by politicians who are trying to make the federal government everything for everyone." He also says it's a job killer, citing an example of a friend whose multi-office dentistry business recently hired 100 new employees. "After assessing the costs forced on his company by Obamacare and weighing whether paying fines for not meeting the coverage requirements put forth therein would be an easier pill to swallow, he realized he cannot afford either," Turner says. "He'll lay off a lot of his new hires this year."
These days, Turner works as a high school economics teacher at the private Charleston Collegiate School, and he says his classroom experience will help him communicate well in Congress. He's also done some thinking about guns in schools while teaching at the rural Johns Island campus. "I am a gun owner — lots of guns," Turner says. "But yet I can't take a gun and defend myself and my children? I can in my house, I can in my car, but I can't at school? That's the most dangerous place." But when asked if he supports the idea of armed police in schools, he says that "may not be the best plan." So ... what is the best plan? "I don't want to go into full detail at this point, but I can tell you I've spent a lot of time thinking about it," Turner says.
With the March 19 Republican primary fast approaching, Turner will need to cement his platform soon. For now, he's running the campaign out of his house, with a team of advisors meeting around a glass table in the living room. A map of the newly redrawn District 1 is spread out on a pool table in a room near the second-floor veranda, which looks out over the Cooper River to the Ravenel Bridge. He's not exactly roughing it, but he insists that he's no Washington insider.
"Not being in the circle, you've got to start from scratch," Turner says, "and that makes it pretty difficult."