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Have Family Dinners Prepared Teddy Turner to Be a Politician?

Teddy Turner, the son of media titan and avowed liberal Ted Turner, gets the question all the time: How did he become his family’s only card-carrying Republican? And journalists aren't the only ones asking it. “It’s amazing how many times my dad’s asked me that question,” says Turner, who is running for Sen. Tim Scott's vacated House seat in South Carolina. Then, in his good-natured Southern drawl, he recalls one of the experiences that helped form his politics: “While I was in the Soviet Union, I was in a car wreck that broke most of the bones in my face. I hit the dashboard from the backseat. The hospital I went to didn’t have an X-ray machine; they didn’t have CAT scans, MRIs. … They had glass-and-steel reusable needles, and about all I did was live on a cot for a week. But it was free.” He pauses deliberately, as if to say, Get it? “Free. Healthcare.”

A finely tuned answer with an Obamacare-themed punch line—not bad for someone who, at 49 years old, is completely new to electoral politics. This inexperience, Turner feels, is his best asset. The Republicans likely to run against him in the March 19 primary include such practiced pols as Mark Sanford—the former governor best remembered for claiming he was hiking the Appalachian Trail when, in fact, he was having an extramarital affair in Argentina—state Rep. Chip Limehouse, and state Sen. Larry Grooms. In their company, Teddy Turner, whose curriculum vitae includes television news producer, amateur maxi-yacht skipper, tech entrepreneur turned scam victim, bison meat purveyor, and high school teacher, is the definition of a political outsider. It's a role he's comfortable with, having grown up as one, too.

If Teddy Turner is blazing a path his father could never fathom—running for Congress as a Republican—it may be because his adult life began squarely in his father’s shadow. After completing college at the Citadel, a military academy in Charleston that his father required him to attend, Turner became a producer for the Moscow bureau of the Ted Turner–owned CNN, for which he spent six hours a day learning Russian. He worked on and off for his father’s media empire until he was 33, when the 1996 merger between Time Warner and Turner Broadcasting System eliminated his position. Over a family dinner, he casually asked his father whether he was safe, figuring he was. The elder Turner curtly replied, “You’re toast.”

In his late 20s and early 30s, Turner cultivated interests and ambitions that he hoped would earn him his father’s admiration. He briefly left his television consulting job in the early '90s, for instance, to train to sail in the 1993-1994 Whitbread Round the World Race, a nine-month, 30,000-mile competition among maxi-yachts (sailboats of 70 feet or longer). The race attracted him, he told the Miami Herald at the time, because it was longer, more grueling, and more reliant on skill than the America’s Cup race, which his father had won in 1977. For the Whitbread, Turner paid $700,000 for an 80-foot practice yacht and hired two sports-marketing experts to raise the millions it would take to build a brand new model. But in a recession, he tells me, the money never materialized.

“That was a time in my life where I felt I needed to compete with Ted, that I needed to be bigger and I needed to be better, that I needed to prove myself,” Turner says, referring to his father, as he often does, as “Ted.” “When you are raised in greatness’ shadow, you spend a lot of time trying to figure out what you’re worth, what your value is. I struggled with that for a long time, but I got over it.”

After being told he was toast, Turner became less involved with his father’s business, though there were occasional engagements. In 1997, for instance, Ted Turner founded U.S. Bison to try to monetize the herd of 17,000 bison that roamed his various ranch properties “like pets,” as he described it to the Associated Press. The idea was to create an upscale U.S. market for bison meat, and he put his son in charge of the effort. (The most notable outcome was a chain of restaurants, Ted's Montana Grill, that boasts “the biggest bison menu in the world.”) But mostly, Teddy Turner's ventures were his own—and they were not, on balance, terribly successful.

In 1997, along with three other partners, he founded a company, Zekko, to mass-produce a box that somehow converted ordinary telephone wires into high-speed data lines. According to the Florida Times-Union, “His name—his father's name, really—conferred legitimacy on the unknown company and its unknown genius, giving many investors confidence.” Teddy Turner gave the inventor of the device, Madison Priest, workspace in a CNN building to produce a prototype. However, after collecting about $1.5 million from investors, Turner and his partners learned that Priest had faked all his demonstrations of the box’s near-magical properties. When confronted in a board meeting, Priest pleaded that he’d been faking his results until he could reverse-engineer how to build the box—a crash in his Corvette had wiped his memory of how to do so. The technology, Priest explained further, had initially come to him from a “hopper,” a species of alien that spread technological knowledge from planet to planet. Until that moment, Turner says, “It was an extremely well-orchestrated illusion.” At the end of the meeting, Turner resigned.

By 2000, he’d formed Inc., a company whose goal was to produce a $299 computer aimed at people who found the machines sold by market giants Microsoft and Intel too confusing to operate. Before could release its first model for sale, Turner had lost his job as chairman of the board. “We built a really good company, from scratch,” he recalls. “And then we met venture capitalists. And they descended upon us like the vultures they are, took over the company, and got rid of all the people who made it what it was.” After losing his chairmanship of, Turner sold his stock in the company and founded Charleston Boatworks, a company that maintenanced racing yachts, which he ran for ten years. Today, in addition to serving on the boards of several South Carolina philanthropies, he teaches high school economics. “I’ve had business successes, and I’ve had business failures,” Turner says. “And that’s O.K., because success is a horrible teacher.”

At the moment, Turner is fully in campaign mode. Having taken a sabbatical from teaching, he set up campaign headquarters in his home, began hiring staff—including Sanford’s coveted former communications director, Chris Drummond—and is holding a campaign kick-off soiree at the Lighthouse on the Creek in his hometown, Mt. Pleasant, on Thursday night. Fundraising comes next. (His father has already donated the maximum amount to his campaign, $2,500.) And he plans to campaign at a breakneck pace. Asked to describe his schedule, he replies, “Does nightmare ring a bell?”

His political positions remain vague. When pushed for his stance on issues, Turner mostly waxes worried about how “the system is very broken,” how Washington “needs new faces and fresh minds” who can “reach across the aisle and do some commonsense stuff,” and that unspecified spending cuts, not higher taxes, are the answer to our nation’s debt. The closest he gets to an actual policy proposal is this: “How about, if you pass one law, you take one off?”

His tenor, though, is just right for someone running in a state that regularly sends Tea Party politicians (in name or spirit) to Washington. Turner is working on his folksy male chauvinism: “If my wife goes out and buys a pair of shoes that were $100 but are marked down to $50, she’ll say, ‘I saved $50!’ I’ll say, ‘No you didn’t, you spent $50.’ But politicians think that’s how you cut a budget.” He’s mastered his political doomsday predicting: “Those people who flew the hammer-and-sickle tried to stage an economy, and we saw how that went. Socialism, which we move closer to in this country every day, scares the heck out of me.” And his opposition to government regulations, while generally unspecific, is well-suited to the 1st Congressional District’s well-to-do and conservative audiences: “Well, I have a friend in the cruise industry. And they keep putting regulation upon new regulation on that industry, not to make the cruise industry any safer, but to raise money for the government.”

How Teddy Turner will fare is difficult to predict. Opinions are split over how much Sanford’s fundraising prowess and name recognition are worth, considering that his second term as governor ended in disgrace. And Turner, who is not self-financed, has access to many of the same deep-pocketed circles as some of his opponents. In fact, just three weeks ago, he went hunting with Sanford and Sanford’s son—but this doesn't make him an insider, Turner insists. The closest that he's come to politicking in the past has been among family. “I’ve sat across the dinner table from Ted Turner and Jane Fonda and discussed politics,” he says, in the course of explaining why he belongs in Congress. “And everybody’s come away happy.”

Follow me on Twitter @mtredden