COLUMBIA — The South Carolina Republican Party ordered former GOP gubernatorial candidate Tom Ervin on Thursday to stop calling himself an independent Republican, which Ervin said tramples the constitutional right to free speech.


State GOP Chairman Matt Moore threatened legal action if Ervin doesn’t immediately stop running TV ads that identify him as an “independent Republican for governor,” saying the ads mislead voters.


But Ervin, a GOP donor, said that’s exactly what he is. He provided copies to The Associated Press of cards identifying him as a “2014 sustaining member” to both the state Republican Party and Republican National Committee. The latter specifies he’s been a member since 2005. Voters don’t register by party in South Carolina, but Ervin said he’s voted in Republican primaries since at least 2004.


“Using Chairman Moore’s ‘logic,’ voters who consider themselves Republicans – but don’t agree with the governor – are no longer Republican,” he said in a statement that ended with, “Oh, and I hope she joins me in opposing frivolous lawsuits.”


Ervin’s ads began running Monday, 10 days after he withdrew from the June primary, saying two months didn’t give him enough time to introduce himself to voters. Ervin said he decided to bypass a primary challenge to Gov. Nikki Haley to instead pursue being a petition candidate on the November ballot against Haley and Democratic Sen. Vincent Sheheen. Doing so requires gathering the signatures of 10,000 registered voters by July 15.


Moore said Ervin forfeited the right to run in the GOP primary, so he can’t call himself a Republican.


“I’ve got the responsibility of making sure candidates tell the truth,” Moore said. “He’s not a Republican in law or practice.”


Former House Speaker Pro Tem Doug Smith, the state GOP party’s lawyer, sent Ervin a cease-and-desist letter Thursday.


Ervin, a Greenville attorney and radio station owner, said it shows Haley is concerned about his candidacy.


“We live in a free country. Thank goodness for freedom of speech,” he told the AP. “I will not be controlled by any special interest group. I’m independent. Mr. Moore is doing the bidding of Gov. Haley. They don’t own the trademark on the word Republican.”


The ads are scheduled to run for another week or so, he said.


Nothing in state law bars Ervin, a former judge and state House member, from calling himself a Republican. State law addresses only candidates who lose in a primary. Under election law, if Ervin had stayed in the GOP race and lost in June, he could not run as a petition candidate in November.


Smith said the rule is set by other court cases. He points to a 1961 decision in New York state as setting clear precedent that Ervin can’t identify himself as a Republican.


The First Amendment doesn’t give Ervin the right to lead voters to believe he’s a Republican candidate, Smith said.


“Nothing stops the judge from saying he’s an independent conservative or a conservative independent. Just using the word Republican is where the problem is,” he said. “If he looks at this critically, he’ll come to the conclusion that it’s better for him to take just the word Republican out.”


Ervin said he will be on the ballot and he’s distributing petitions for signatures.


His initial campaign disclosure, filed April 5, showed he’d loaned his campaign $420,000. After expenses, he had just $270,000 available, compared to Haley’s $4.3 million and Sheheen’s $1.7 million as of March 31.