09/29/2013 05:00 EDT | Updated 11/28/2013 05:12 EST

Nova Scotia NDP Grapples With Key Departures


HALIFAX - In a province where voters have granted a second term or more to every government for the past 131 years, Nova Scotia's New Democrats are hoping history will repeat itself when the election is held next week.

But the New Democrats, led by Premier Darrell Dexter, are trailing the Liberals in the polls and the NDP's status as incumbent party has been shaken by a series of key departures before the Oct 8. election was called.

In the Halifax area, the party's traditional stronghold since the 1990s, five of the party's most senior members are not seeking re-election.

"It's got to be worrisome for the NDP," says Jeff MacLeod, chairman of the political studies program at Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax.

"That (stronghold) could come apart in one election, easily. It isn't a long historical trend. It's a relatively recent one if you look at the entire scope of Nova Scotia politics. The threads are thin."

The NDP stalwarts not seeking re-election include three former cabinet ministers: Bill Estabrooks in Timberlea-Prospect, Marilyn More in Dartmouth South and Graham Steele in Fairview-Clayton Park.

Steele, the former finance minister and a Rhodes Scholar, was the NDP's high-profile point man on a number of important files.

As well, NDP veterans Howard Epstein in Halifax Chebucto and Michele Raymond in Halifax Atlantic stepped down after serving their ridings for at least a decade.

Dan O'Connor, Dexter's chief of staff, says the party has been through this sort of thing before and he cited examples of when the party has held on to Halifax seats despite the departure of a popular incumbent.

"We've never denied that it's challenging," he said in an interview. "That's why we encourage the new candidates to be out as early and often as possible to get themselves known."

When Nova Scotia became the first province east of Ontario to elect an NDP government, the party's success in 2009 was largely attributed to breakthrough wins in rural constituencies.

In the 2009 vote, the party gained a dozen seats, all of them at the expense of the Progressive Conservatives.

O'Connor says the lopsided result stemmed from the New Democrats' decision to focus their campaign exclusively on Conservative ridings, anticipating a complete collapse of the Tory vote.

"We never once mentioned the Liberals," O'Connor says.

"(Today) there are areas where the NDP might lose a seat because the Conservatives have fallen so fast that ... it might give the Liberals the edge."

The NDP is also facing challenges along the province's rural South Shore, a region where the party picked up four key seats in 2009.

The party's former caucus chairwoman, Vicki Conrad in Queens, bowed out of the race before the election was called.

"Significant elements (of the party) have abandoned Dexter, maybe for valid personal reasons," says MacLeod.

"There is a real confidence question within that caucus. Right now, the NDP could be in deep trouble. They really have to assess their approach going into the final week of the campaign."

O'Connor dismissed MacLeod's suggestion.

"Our caucus has a lot of open opportunities to talk things through with the leader. It's encouraged. If there was any genuine issue, it would be right out there," he says.

Still, the Liberals are targeting NDP ridings, particularly in Halifax.

Last week, Liberal Leader Stephen McNeil made a point of taking his tour bus into six NDP-held ridings in the Halifax area, where he was joined by federal Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau.

Trudeau's undeniable star power attracted dozens of supporters at each campaign stop — big crowds for a provincial campaign that has been a largely sleepy affair for the past three weeks.

As for Conservative Leader Jamie Baillie, he has made it clear that he believes the province's voters have already turned their backs on the NDP.

"I hear the same thing wherever I go: 'We don't know who we're voting for yet, but we know who we're not voting for,'" he said in an interview last week.

During a formal leaders debate televised last Wednesday, Baillie made a point of engaging McNeil and largely ignoring the premier.

At dissolution, the NDP held 31 seats in the house, followed by the Liberals at 12 and the Progressive Conservatives with seven. There were two vacancies.

Under a redrawn electoral map, the legislature now has 51 seats instead of 52.