Lindsey Graham's big scare: How an ex-con reality star could ruin his life

After a censure by local Republicans for being a RINO, now the senator has a libertarian rival who's... unusual

By Heather Digby Parton


Published May 14, 2014 5:17PM (EDT)

 Lindsey Graham (AP/Charles Dharapak)
Lindsey Graham (AP/Charles Dharapak)

These are tough times for the Republican maverick.Where once this was a celebrated archetype among the conservative tribe (as long as it included a devotion to low taxes and global military dominance) today there is just no room for deviation from the party line in even the smallest of ways. Take, for example, the plight of Sen. Lindsey Graham -- who just suffered an epic humiliation at the hands of his own party in Charleston County, South Carolina, for  being a RINO turncoat:

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) was censured Monday night by Republicans in Charleston County who don't believe he's conservative enough.

According to The Post and Courier of Charleston, South Carolina, the vote to censure Graham was 39-32, "done by secret ballot and with limited discussion."

"I want my politicians to be more conservative," said Tom Sheridan, one of the supporters of the resolution.

The censure document covered about 30 points, including disapproval of Graham's support for President Barack Obama's Supreme Court nominees and of his cooperation with Democrats.

The Graham campaign issued a feisty rebuttal insisting that they were going to take their campaign to all 20,000 Republicans in Charleston County and then see who comes out on top. The problem for Lindsey Graham is that the most liberal Republicans in the whole state live in Charleston County. The rest of the state is much more conservative.

The latest polling isn't great news for him: 40 percent approve and 38 percent disapprove. And that's actually an improvement over previous polls. Still, he is being challenged by six other Republicans for the GOP nomination and there is little reason to believe that he won't be the nominee. All the political wags thinks he'll make it over the 50 percent threshold.

But that is not to say that he's a total shoo-in for another term. If he gets through the primary he has a a rival on his hands who could turn the race into a circus: former Republican Thomas Ravenel, millionaire scion of a famous political family, ex-state treasurer, drug felon -- and reality TV star. He'll be running as a libertarian, naturally. (What else could a drug felon ex-Republican do?) So, to the extent that Lindsey Graham will be depending on the kindness of "moderate" Republicans (and to the extent they even exist) he may have a run for his money.

Ravenel is a very familiar name in South Carolina --- the Arthur Ravenel Jr. bridge that crosses the Cooper River is named for his father. And if voters are worried that the younger Ravenel doesn't represent the proper South Carolina values, they may be soothed by the father's deep South bona fides: Ex-congressman Arthur Ravenel is best known for his quip calling the NAACP the "national association for retarded people."

Thomas Ravenel's comeback, if there is one, is based upon his starring role in the Bravo reality series "Southern Charm," a portrait of a group of wealthy Charleston socialites, drinking and gossiping and sleeping their way through everyone in the group. Only two of them work for a living and it's so anomalous that they all comment on it constantly. They play polo and go to their country houses to drink and hunt and spend a lot of time on their yachts. (The country houses have been in their families for centuries -- at one time they were undoubtedly more familiarly known as "plantations.") They are antebellum society -- 1 percenters going all the way back. In fact, the 21-year-old woman the 50-year-old Thomas Ravenel is dating on the show is spoken of as "a Calhoun" in the hushed tones usually reserved for royalty. They are true blue Southern Aristocrats and that's got currency in South Carolina.

It's hard to imagine that a conservative state like South Carolina would elect someone with Ravenel's past, but Lindsey Graham is fairly eccentric himself. His Republican opponents aren't sparing him their worst and the worst in South Carolina is very bad indeed, particularly for mavericks. It's possible that Thomas Ravenel wearing his foibles on his sleeve in front of the whole country may just inoculate him from the usual attacks. What rumors can the GOP establishment whisper about that he hasn't shouted to the whole world? And it must be remembered that before his "troubles" Ravenel came within 1 point of beating Jim DeMint. He's a real politician.

It's unlikely that South Carolina won't end up reelecting Lindsey Graham. But it could be a very interesting race and one that Ravenel seems willing to wage just to make Graham's life miserable. And he has a specific reason, according to this letter to the editor from last February:

Shortly after the federal government’s domestic spy network was exposed last spring, U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham went on national television to say he was “glad” the National Security Agency was monitoring, collecting and storing our personal information.

“I’m a Verizon customer,” Graham said. “I don’t mind Verizon turning over records to the government if the government is going to make sure that they try to match up a known terrorist phone with somebody in the United States. I don’t think you’re talking to the terrorists. I know you’re not. I know I’m not.”

I’m curious: Other than the Fourth Amendment (which Graham is explicitly rejecting), what indispensible American liberties would he sacrifice?

That's an unusual comment coming from a South Carolina Republican. But then Ravenel is not a Republican. As he says, "having gone to prison, I was emancipated from the Republican Party." Isn't there an old saying that a conservative is a liberal who's been mugged and a liberal is a conservative who's been arrested? It's hard to think of a better reason to put some Republican crooks in jail than that.

I'd keep my eye on Thomas Ravenel. He may be a clown, but he isn't a fool. He's got money and he's fine with being a spoiler.

By Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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