Tom Ervin is giving the Republican Party fits these days.

The former judge is running for governor and calling himself an "Independent Republican" in TV ads.

The state GOP, not surprisingly, wants him to stop.

Now, the Republicans have cause to be upset, but not because Ervin has a snowball's chance of unseating Gov. Nikki Haley, or even playing spoiler in the November election. As good a candidate as he may be, Ervin is an astronomical long shot to do either of those things.

What the GOP needs to be worried about is the further splintering of the party. The Republicans like to say they are big tent, but these days they are more like a shanty town with warring factions.

It's no longer good enough just to call yourself a Republican in some places - you have to add an adjective. As a result, the Republicans have overloaded primaries and are taking friendly fire from people in Berkeley County slapping "RINO" stickers on their candidates' campaign signs.

Now we have an "Independent Republican" running for governor.

It makes you wonder what, exactly, constitutes a Republican these days.

Count 'em - 4 GOPs

Robert Oldendick, a political science professor at the University of South Carolina and director of its Institute for Public Service and Policy Research, says there are at least two strains of Republicans here.

It's most evident in our U.S. Senate races this year.

On the one hand, you have a veteran senator who is nationally known and perhaps the state's most recognizable politician. On the other is a freshman appointed to the job and unknown to many voters.

Normally, you'd expect the newcomer to be the one with six challengers in the Republican primary.

"We have exactly the opposite in South Carolina," Oldendick says.

Apparently, "Republican" can mean a lot of different things, some of them completely the opposite of others. Some people believe the GOP is three or four distinct parties these days.

First you have the establishment guys, the country club Republicans. They are traditionalists who support business, free markets and economic development. These are the ones who get called "RINOs" - Republican In Name Only - although they were here first.

"That means once upon a time somewhere you voted for a tax increase," Oldendick says.

Or it could mean a person has once compromised. By either definition, Ronald Reagan was a big ol' RINO.

The tea partiers are the ones who most often hurl that insult. They don't believe in taxes for anything. The tea party says it started to combat wasteful government spending, but formed only when Obama became president. The establishment guys hate the tea party, but are afraid to say anything. The tea party votes.

Then there are the social conservatives, who give the establishment heartburn by constantly dredging up issues that cost them national elections. These are the people who rail against gay rights, evolution and abortion. Social conservatives care deeply about human life.

Until that human life exits the womb. Then it's on its own. No Medicaid for you.

Finally, there are the libertarian-leaning Republicans, who actually do believe government should stay out of peoples' lives. Other Republicans say this but often have no hesitation in siccing the government on other people (see social conservatives).

And now Ervin comes along and declares himself an "Independent Republican" - whatever that means.

They all seem pretty independent in their own way.

So few choices...

Many political observers, Oldendick included, say there's not much the GOP can do about Ervin's self-appointed title.

You don't have to pay dues to be a Republican, or even register. If you want to call yourself a Republican, you can. Honestly, Ervin qualifies - he votes Republican, and even hosted a fundraiser for Mitt Romney. So what if he was a Democrat in the '70s? Many South Carolina Republicans were then, too.

This is a headache for the national GOP, but South Carolina Republicans need not worry about Ervin or any faction. Sure, these folks complicate primaries and cause the party to spend money it otherwise wouldn't.

But the Republicans aren't in danger of losing elections to Ervin or anyone else. At the end of the day, 54-55 percent of people in this state are going to vote Republican, no matter what.

After all, it's better than voting for a Democrat.

Reach Brian Hicks at bhicks@postandcourier.com