COLUMBIA - Former South Carolina Treasurer, reality TV star and convicted felon Thomas Ravenel plans to run for the U.S. Senate seat currently held by Republican Lindsey Graham.
Ravenel presented about 16,500 signatures from registered voters to the state Election Commission on Monday, well over the 10,000 he needed. If the commission verifies the signatures, he will be an independent on the November ballot against Graham, Democratic state Sen. Brad Hutto and Libertarian Victor Kocher.
Ravenel told The Post and Courier on Monday that he was in the race to win it, but conceded if polls show him not gaining traction or if he fails to raise substantial funding to be competitive, he could drop out of contention by September.
"If it gets into September and I don't have a chance, I'm not going to throw $3 (million) or $4 million down the drain," he said, comparing his bid to that of a startup business. "We'll just see what the return is as I'm making the phone calls and reaching out to people."
Ravenel, a millionaire developer with a famous family name in South Carolina, told reporters his plans to deliver the signatures in advance, and television news cameras buzzed around him. He entered the Election Commission office twice at the request of television news crews to get the best shot of him carrying in the blue boxes with his paperwork.
But he insists his candidacy is serious and South Carolina needs another option.
"South Carolina voters will no longer have a false choice between the warfare state and the welfare state - between one guy who wants to take all their liberties and most of their wallet and a guy who wants to take all of his wallet and most of their liberties," Ravenel said.
But Ravenel, 51, brings a lot of baggage into the race. His statement to reporters initially didn't touch on the problems in his personal life, which include a 10-month prison sentence after pleading guilty to buying cocaine for himself and his friends that led to his resignation as treasurer. He also pleaded guilty to driving under the influence in Long Island, New York, earlier this year and had his license suspended for six months.
His reality TV show, "Southern Charm," depicted Ravenel appearing inebriated and threatening to slap a cast mate, and the season culminated with him getting a co-star less than half his age pregnant. Ravenel has moved in with her and is helping to raise their infant daughter. He has said he won't return to the show for a second season.
"I know I am an imperfect messenger. But my personal life is my problem," Ravenel said. "Lindsey Graham's public life is your problem - everyone's problem."
Just eight years ago, Ravenel was a handsome, television-savvy Republican rising star. He was elected to the state treasurer's office in 2006 after nearly pulling off a huge upset as a small government and personal freedom supporting outsider in the GOP U.S. Senate primary eventually won by Jim DeMint in 2004. But he was in office only five months before his cocaine arrest in June 2007.
On Monday, the state Republican party sent an email with the subject line: "SCGOP Statement on Convicted Felon Thomas Ravenel Running for U.S. Senate."
"We doubt many voters will be interested in a convicted felon who renounced his American citizenship ... His so-called 'campaign' is an embarrassment and the people of South Carolina don't appreciate it one bit," Republican spokesman Matt Orr said in the statement.
Ravenel did say he was going to leave the U.S., making a post on Facebook in 2011, complaining he couldn't own a gun because he was a convicted felon and saying he didn't think he owed the country anything because it destroyed his reputation, confiscated his wealth and took his freedom. Ravenel called the post a satirical joke Monday.
"I love America. I'm not going to leave this country," Ravenel said.
South Carolina law prevents felons from running for state office, but there is no prohibition for federal candidates.
The other candidates welcomed Ravenel into the race.
"I know that Thomas has expressed a desire to discuss issues from the perspective of liberty and I welcome that. Voters in an election, just like consumers in the economy, deserve the widest possible array of competitive choices," Kocher said in a statement.
Democrats said voters need as many choices as possible to replace Graham because he has lost touch with South Carolina.
"We welcome anyone with serious ideas to the race and look forward to debating the issues that matter," Hutto campaign spokesman Lachlan McIntosh said.
Graham's campaign did not talk about Monday's events. Graham has $3.7 million in his campaign accounts after spending almost $7 million to beat six other candidates outright in the Republican primary.
The Post and Courier's Schuyler Kropf contributed to this story.
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