Last night’s election in Newfoundland and Labrador was historic, with Progressive Conservative Leader Kathy Dunderdale elected as the province's first female premier.
But had just 78 votes gone a different way, there could have been another first last night — the NDP seizing the role of Official Opposition from the Liberals.
To the surprise of no one, the PCs won a majority of both seats and votes.
The real battle going into last night’s vote was for the role of the Official Opposition, and the New Democrats had the inside track.
After the death of Jack Layton and the resignation of the N.L. Liberal Leader Yvonne Jones due to health reasons, the NDP under Lorraine Michael took over second place in the polls. Throughout the campaign, the New Democrats held a 10 to 20 point advantage over the Liberals. The NDP had never won more than two seats or 15 per cent of the vote, so their gains signaled a major realignment in Newfoundland and Labrador politics might be brewing.
But the last poll of the campaign was taken a week before ballots were cast, and when the votes were counted the Liberals had narrowed the gap to six points (19 per cent to 25 per cent), managing to best the NDP by just one seat.
That is not to say the performance of the NDP was disappointing. They did what it was thought they could do, and even more. The New Democrats won four seats in St. John's, defeating one Tory cabinet minister in the process. They also topped 35 per cent in five other ridings in the St. John's region.
The NDP broke through outside the city too, stealing a seat from the Liberals in western Newfoundland in a close three-way race. It was the first NDP victory outside of St. John's or Labrador.
They had another seat in their sights outside the capital. Burin-Placentia West was a rematch between PC MHA Clyde Jackman and NDP hopeful Julie Mitchell, and again Mitchell came up short. Only 40 votes separated the NDP from the Tories in the riding. Coupled with a 38-vote Liberal victory in St. Barbe, only 78 votes separated the New Democrats from the role of Official Opposition.
And that was because the Liberals surpassed most people's expectations.
Dropping below 20 per cent in the polls was a horrific blow for the party that had governed Newfoundland and Labrador for most of its post-Confederation history. In the end, the Liberals did slightly better than expected in the popular vote, but still won only captured one in five votes.
Liberal leader Kevin Aylward was defeated in his own riding, but his party managed to win six seats, one more than the NDP. They will remain the Official Opposition despite placing third in the popular vote. The Liberals even took less of the vote than they did in 2007, when they won fewer seats.
While The Liberals hung on to their position as the second party in the House of Assembly, the election has changed politics in Newfoundland and Labrador. The New Democrats, never more than a distant third place party, are now a factor on the Rock. The Liberals have demonstrated that, while weak, they certainly aren't dead yet and Kathy Dunderdale has stepped out of the shadow of Danny Williams. A new era of politics in Newfoundland and Labrador begins today.