- Associated Press - Friday, October 24, 2014

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - Tom Ervin knows he’s an extreme longshot to win the South Carolina governor’s seat. But low poll numbers don’t mean the Greenville independent isn’t have an effect on the race.

“We’ve really set the agenda for the debate,” Ervin told The Associated Press in a recent interview. “Both these candidates have seen the support we’ve gotten.”

Ervin, a former judge and legislator, entered the gubernatorial race this year as Gov. Nikki Haley’s primary challenger. But he withdrew from the Republican contest days after filing to run, saying he needed more time to introduce himself to voters.

In July, Ervin secured a spot on the November ballot after collecting twice the required 10,000 signatures. He has spent millions of his own money to stay relevant, crisscrossing the state for events and showcasing his ideas in television ads.

On some issues, though, Ervin has seemed at times aligned with Democratic state Sen. Vincent Sheheen, who has in at least one instance echoed Ervin’s message. Earlier this month, Ervin held a Statehouse news conference saying Haley shouldn’t have taken campaign contributions from companies she was recruiting to do business with South Carolina. Days later, Sheheen critiqued the governor for the same thing.

Ervin also has criticized Haley for refusing to accept federal money to expand Medicaid, another issue on which Sheheen has seized. Both Ervin and Sheheen also have said teacher pay should be increased.

Ervin was a Democrat when he served two House terms representing Anderson County, starting in 1979, when Democrats ruled the state. Other Democrats he served with in the Legislature now lead the Senate’s GOP majority, and Ervin says he’s changed parties but not his views.

That messaging aside, political experts say Ervin could potentially carve votes away from Haley if voters see him as the “independent Republican” he’s claimed to be, tipping the scales in favor of Sheheen.

“Wherever Ervin is pulling his votes from, in the way he is affecting the conversation, he is definitely a thorn in Nikki Haley’s side,” said Winthrop political science professor Scott Huffmon. “When he is talking about the same thing that Vincent Sheheen is, it gives a bit of nonpartisan credibility to him. It triangulates those attacks.”

Ervin’s poll numbers aren’t high enough to put him in contention to win. A recent Winthrop University survey of likely South Carolina voters showed Ervin with 3.9 percent. The same poll showed Haley with a 43.6 to 33.6 percent lead over Sheheen, with undecided voters at 12.4 percent. The poll’s margin of error was plus or minus 3 percent.

In 2010, half of voters took the straight-party option.

Still, in the waning days until the general election, Ervin says he will continue to bring his message to voters, holding town hall meetings to discuss his ideas on gradual increases to the minimum wage, putting caps on college tuition and expanding 4-K kindergarten statewide.

“We offer a real alternative,” he said. “We see a path to victory.”

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Kinnard can be reached at http://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP

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