OTTAWA — Less than 72 hours before voters in the Manitoba riding of Brandon–Souris cast ballots in a federal byelection that was supposed to be an easy win for the Conservatives, Prime Minister Stephen Harper is heading to Winnipeg to try and stave off a Liberal upset and slow Justin Trudeau’s momentum.
The prime minister’s trip is the latest chapter in a race that has caught observers by surprise, but Brandon is just one of four interesting federal byelections Monday. There are also battles in Toronto Centre, the Montreal riding of Bourassa and in Provencher, Man.
Liberal and NDP camps have complained their opponents are engaged in nasty, negative and personal attacks. The parties are going after each other especially hard in Toronto Centre, and the NDP is aggressively pursuing Bourassa. In Brandon–Souris, however, the Conservative Party took the unprecedented step this week of delivering a letter to voters on behalf of the prime minister – not the leader of the Conservative Party – urging them to vote for the Tory candidate and attacking both Trudeau and the Liberal candidate in the riding.
The party is also peppering the riding with glossy images of Trudeau taking his shirt off (during a charity benefit) and selectively quoting him.
The Tories know they are in trouble. A Forum poll suggests Rolf Dinsdale, the Grit candidate who is the son of Walter Dinsdale, the long-time Progressive Conservative MP in the riding, could win.
Sensing momentum, the Grits purchased the front page of the local paper, the Brandon Sun, Friday morning with smiling photo of Trudeau and his candidate pronouncing: "Change is coming to Brandon-Souris." In another full page ad, Trudeau also asked voters for their support.
Conservative spokesman Cory Hann says the Tories have four strong candidates and are running good campaigns, but he plays down expectations. “Majority governments don't usually fare well in byelections,” Hann told The Huffington Post Canada in an email.
Carleton University political scientist Bruce Hicks agrees. Byelections are always difficult for incumbent governments because people tend to air their frustration when they know there is little risk of changing the balance of power, he said.
If Trudeau wins in Brandon–Souris it will give “Justin the capacity to claim that people are tired of the government and welcoming the Liberals” as the alternative to Harper, he said.
The PM sent trusted campaign manager and deputy chief of staff Jenni Byrne to Brandon–Souris to shore up support. His last-minute Manitoba visit Friday to announce support for the Winnipeg Centreport is not close enough to Brandon to count towards the party’s election-spending limits or to distract campaign volunteers and suck up resources, but it is close enough to make the newspapers and the supper-hour newscast.
Harper is not the only party leader to make a visit. NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair has made two stops in Brandon–Souris and Trudeau has made three.
A lot is at stake for all three political parties, says Kelly Saunders, a Brandon University political science professor.
“If the Liberals are able to break through in Western Canada, which has not been their strong point, then it is going to show that there is some momentum on the Liberal side,” she said.
In the short term, that will hurt the Conservatives, who may have taken the seat for granted. Headquarters in Ottawa botched a nomination fight when it protected its preferred candidate Larry McGuire.
There were conflict of interest questions raised when the incumbent MP, Merv Tweed, quit to go work for a big rail company. McGuire has been told to stay away from the media and not to show up for debates, which has annoyed some Conservative supporters in the riding, Saunders said. It hasn’t helped the Tories that former Conservative MP Rick Borotsik endorsed Trudeau and the Brandon Sun, has been championing the Grit candidate.
If Dinsdale wins Monday, Saunders believes it will actually signal bigger trouble for the NDP.
“Because out here, if you don’t vote Conservative, you vote NDP, and I think the NDP are really going to see their vote eroding.”
The NDP finished second in Brandon–Souris in 2011, with the Liberals fourth behind the Greens. The seat has been Conservative almost without exception since 1951. The Liberals won it in 1993 when Progressive Conservatives were wiped out across the country.
NDP national director Nathan Rotman cautions against reading too much into byelection results. In 2010, people suggested that the NDP was in trouble when the Liberals under Michael Ignatieff won a byelection in the NDP stronghold of Winnipeg North, he said.
“[They] said, ‘Oh, this is bad news for the NDP. … The Liberals are about to be on a roll,’ and it didn’t quite turn out that way,” Rotman said. The Liberals lost 43 seats of the 77 they held before the election 2011 election. The NDP gained 67 seats to finish with 103.
Byelections are snapshots in time, Rotman insists. Then why is his party spending so much time and effort running an aggressive campaign in Toronto Centre, trying to score an upset in Bourassa and attempting to ensure Trudeau does not win in Brandon?
“Because the media thinks it matters,” Rotman answered, a smile on his lips.
Mulcair has visited Toronto Centre six times and will be in Bourassa on Friday for the fifth time.
David Patry, spokesman for Bourassa candidate Stéphane Moraille, told HuffPost that if the NDP can get their vote out, “we could really cause a surprise in Bourassa.” That would be a feat. The seat is traditionally Liberal and had been held by the incumbent Denis Coderre, now the mayor of Montreal, since 1997.
“If the Liberals lost, that that would be a big indictment of Justin Trudeau,” said Hicks, the Carleton University political scientist. He added, however, that any party losing a seat that is currently theirs would be an indictment of their leader and their ability to wage a campaign.
It’s only four seats rather than the 308 in a general election, Hicks said. “ That is not a big campaign to run. So if you can’t pull that off, why should we believe that you can be prime minister?”
Liberal national director Jeremy Broadhurst also plays down expectations.
“I would hesitate to draw a great sweeping conclusion on the results,” he said.
People read too much into four different campaigns that just happen to be grouped together, he told HuffPost in a phone interview.
“While we want to be pushing to the end in all of these ones, the more important thing is that the [Liberal] party was the only party that was competing in all four ridings,” Broadhurst said.
“If we fall short in one riding or another, I don’t think at the end of the day, it would say that [the Liberals] are not competitive in any of those places.”
Provencher will likely remain Conservative. Toronto Centre, which has been Liberal since 1993 but rotated between the Progressive Conservatives and the Grits in the past, is a tight race that the NDP is hoping to win with its star candidate, Toronto Star columnist Linda McQuaig.
The Liberal’s star candidate, journalist Chrystia Freeland, who moved her family from New York to compete for the job, told HuffPost that she knows the stakes are “incredibly high.”
“In Toronto Centre and in the four byelections overall, I think that this moment is the first act in the general election of 2015,” she said. “This is a really important byelection, and I am working as hard as I can.”
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