Just a by-election: But a nightmare for the NDP

It’s dangerous — silly, perhaps — to read too much into a single by-election a year into the term of a government that every single poll shows is tremendously, even historically popular across the country.

And yet.

hill squareIn the southern Alberta riding of Medicine Hat—Cardston—Warner on Monday, the Conservatives — without a permanent leader —  easily ran to victory. But they were supposed to. Meanwhile, the Liberals did surprisingly well versus past elections. And the NDP? All but invisible.

With 23,932 of 34,260 votes cast, Glen Motz won just a hair shy of 70 per cent of the vote and, as a result, Motz will become Canada’s newest member of Parliament. Congratulations.

The governing party, Justin Trudeau’s Liberals, was repudiated but that was to be expected. This is a riding that has a just six times since its existence in 1908, the last being 1968, when another Trudeau was leading . And with 8,778 of 25.6 per cent of the votes, Liberal Stan Sakamoto, actually upped his party’s game in this riding.

In last fall, the Liberals got more votes — 9,085 — but more people voted which meant candidate, Glen Allan, got a lower percentage of the vote at 17.94%. 

The last time the Liberals scored as well in this area of the country in was 1974, when H.A. Bud Olson scored 32.8% of the vote in a losing cause to Conservative Bert Hargrave. 

This time around, Trudeau did what is a rare for a sitting prime minister in a by-election that changes nothing so far as the power balance in the House of Commons: He personally campaigned in the riding with Sakamoto. That this popular sitting prime minister could not drag his team into first place is not a failure of him or his government. That his team did so well versus the historical record here for Liberals is yet another sign of his and his party’s current strength.

Now while Motz, the winning Conservative, scored 70 per cent, that was very close to the popular vote scored by the late Jim Hillyer, the Conservative who won in the general election. He died at the age of 41 last spring in his Parliament Hill office. Hillyer received 68.8 per cent of the vote last October. 

Conservatives, in fact, routinely clean up here with about 70 per cent vote. Monte Solberg, in 2006, actually came within a whisker of 80 per cent.

So with the Conservative candidate as rock-steady and popular as always, where did the improved of the Liberals come from?

From the NDP, of . The New Democrats had an absolutely awful showing.

As the first handful of polls reported Monday evening,  NDP candidate Beverly Ann Waege was running in sixth — sixth! — behind candidates for the Rhinoceros Party, the Libertarians, and the Christian Heritage Party. When all the counting was done — 34,260 of 76,911 registered electors cast a ballot for a voter turnout of 44.54% — the NDP had notched all of 353 votes or 1 per cent of the total. Rod Taylor of the Christian Heritage Party got twice that with 702 votes.

But in the 2015 general election, a New Democrat named Erin Weir (not to be confused with the New Democrat Erin Weir who won in Regina—Lewvan) notched nearly 10 per cent of the vote with 4,897 ballots cast. Just under a year later, all but 353 of those NDP voters chose someone else. My guess: They voted for Trudeau’s Liberals.

The New Democrats have never done so poorly here. The low-water mark until Tuesday was 1988 when the party got 4.42% of the vote. (A CCF candidate scored 3.86% in 1958)

Now, no New Democrat has ever been elected in this riding. And the federal party is without a permanent leader. The current interim leader, Thomas Mulcair, had been rejected by his party, of course, and (so far as I know) he did not campaign for his candidate in this election. At the federal level, a generation of key backroom players are being swapped out for new players. So this by-election took place as the federal party transitions to an entirely new set of leaders.

In the House of Commons, New Democrats have, at times, lacked energy and looked listless, particularly compared to the relatively energetic Conservatives in opposition. It was not until last last week that the race to replace Mulcair showed a pulse with MP Peter Julian announcing he was “exploring” the idea of running. 

Of course, provincially, the NDP government of Premier Rachel Notley — not yet 18-months-old — is behind in the polls. Did her unpopularity factor into the Medicine Hat by-election? Possibly.

But the bigger factor seems to be a heightening of a trend we saw in many ridings across the country in the general election: Progressive, NDP-minded voters casting their ballot for Trudeau’s Liberals. And in Medicine Hat’s case Monday, unlike the general, there was no bogeyman named Stephen that progressives were rallying against. No. In this case, they were voteing for Trudeau, after watching him in action for a year. 

That may be both boon and burden for the Trudeau Liberals. On some key files like electoral reform and the environment, these progressive voters may yet be disappointed. And with disappointment — and with a new leader — the NDP may be able to steal back those voters. The burden, then, on the Liberals will be keeping those progressives happy.

For the Conservatives, Medicine Hat Monday stands in as a good proxy for their current situation. With lots of money in the bank; with just under 100 MPs in the House of Commons, with plenty of candidates putting their hands up to succeed Stephen Harper, and with a base that seems rock-solid, the party is in good shape. 

But as many Conservatives have told me over the last number of weeks, the Conservatives absolutely have to have a better performance from the NDP. Until New Democrats can pull progressive voters away from the Liberal side of the ledger, Conservatives will be hard-pressed to win government because so many ridings, depend heavily on the Conservative candidate benefitting from Liberal-NDP vote splits. Indeed, when Harper won his majority in 2011, a huge NDP surge in ridings in the GTA ridings of Brampton or Mississauga helped put Tories in the House.

On the other hand, a collapse of the NDP vote of the kind we saw Monday in southern Alberta would make it difficult to the point of impossible for a new Conservative leader to topple an incumbent Trudeau in 2019.
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About David Akin