City Watch

The Real Threat to Haley is Ervin, Not Sheheen

By Kevin Fisher
Wednesday, June 11, 2014
No matter how much of his own money he spends, Tom Ervin isn’t likely to get out of bed as governor-elect of South Carolina on Nov. 6. But it’s possible that his candidacy could produce the best wake-up call Sen. Vincent Sheheen ever received in his life when that morning arrives.

While the Kershaw County senator is off to another lackluster start in his rerun bid against Gov. Nikki Haley, Sheheen at least seems to realize she is his opponent this time. In the 2010 gubernatorial race, Sheheen and the Democratic Party wasted vast amounts of time and money running against: Mark Sanford.

Seemingly unaware that Sanford wasn’t on the ballot, Sheheen and the Dems spent big on ads in which he looked earnestly to camera and said such irrelevant things as “I stood up to Mark Sanford …” and “After eight years of Mark Sanford …” It was painful, pitiful and politically brain-dead. It was also Haley’s path to victory, taking the focus off controversies surrounding her and allowing her to do what she does best: campaign.

Haley is good on the stump, good on TV and good at connecting with people, all things that don’t seem to come as easily to Sheheen, his considerable intelligence and experience notwithstanding. Moreover, she is the incumbent Republican governor in a Republican state in an off-year election, which favors Republican candidates. The bottom line is Sheheen needs some sort of outside assistance to have any chance of knocking off Haley in November.

Enter Tom Ervin and his 20,137 signatures. The former legislator and State Circuit judge from Anderson County delivered petitions to the S.C. Election Commission this week containing twice the number of signatures required to get him on the November ballot as an independent candidate for governor (or “independent Republican,” as he likes to call himself).

Of course, at least 10,000 of those signatures have to be certified first. Moreover, as the Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce and Mayor Steve Benjamin learned last fall, gathering enough signatures to get on the ballot does not automatically translate into support at the voting booth.

While the Chamber footed the bill to pay a Georgia firm to solicit the signatures necessary to put the strong mayor referendum on the ballot, the measure was trounced at the polls. I don’t know whether Ervin’s signatures are the result of grassroots support or greenbacks at work — and the news media should ask him — but it now seems likely he will be a choice for voters when they enter the booth in November.

That makes Ervin a very real threat to Haley, much more so than Sheheen himself. Why? Simply put, because Ervin could conceivably take enough votes from Haley to allow Sheheen to win with 47 percent of the vote, the same percentage he received in 2010. While Haley won, she underperformed the usual statewide margin of victory for Republicans in this red state, getting 51 percent of the vote.

In other words, if Ervin peels off 4 or 5 percentage points from Haley, Sheheen can win without improving on his 2010 performance. That’s what makes it possible — and interesting. While I doubt that Sheheen can get much, if anything, beyond that 47 percent, the question is whether Haley can be pulled down below her 51 percent total of the last election. The most recent Winthrop Poll showed her holding steady at 52 percent.

The problem for Haley is that Ervin is going to take votes from her, not Sheheen. While I know Republican operatives like to suggest he is just as likely to pull from Sheheen, I don’t buy it. Ervin is very much running against Haley from within the Republican Party, seeking the votes of those disaffected with the governor.

Moreover, he is from and well known in the GOP vote-rich Upstate, while Haley’s base is in the less Republican Midlands. Ervin’s best opportunity to get votes is where the most Republican votes are, meaning he could have a disproportionate impact on statewide results with a decent showing in the Upstate.

While Haley may have gotten the opponent she wanted in Sheheen, she may also be getting the one she didn’t in Ervin. Stay tuned.

Fisher is president of Fisher Communications, a Columbia advertising and public relations firm. He is active in local issues involving the arts, conservation, business and politics.

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