11/26/2014 03:49 EST | Updated 01/25/2015 05:59 EST

Cochrane: The Tories are governing on borrowed time

When the House of Assembly opened last week I had a quick chat with a cabinet minister about the looming byelections in Humber East and Trinity Bay de Verde.

The cabinet minister gave me a sober assessment of the stakes. “If we lose both,” the minister said. “We’re done.”

In fact, this staunch Progressive Conservative expanded on this, saying the party was something that autocorrects to “Ducked” if they couldn’t hold on to at least one of the seats.

“Ducked” doesn’t even begin to describe it.

The Tories have now lost seven byelections in a row, a losing streak without precedent in this province.

Six of those losses came in seats held by two former premiers, two finance ministers, a house leader and a justice minister. 

The Tories are a general election call away from losing the government.

Humber East provided the Tories with their biggest margin of victory in the 2011 election with 78 per cent of the vote. On Tuesday the Liberals blew them out of the water.

It was an even bigger electoral slaughter in Trinity Bay de Verde. The Liberal margin of victory of 1,700 votes exceeded their entire vote total in that district from the 2011 election.

Four years after Danny's departure

These votes were held four years to the day of Danny Williams stunning announcement that he was leaving as premier.

At that time, the PCs were at the height of their power. They were an unstoppable political machine that went on to win the 2011 election with a reduced but still sizable majority.

But now Tory MHAs keep quitting. The Liberals keep winning their seats. And their margins of victory keep growing.

If you’ve stepped foot inside any of the byelection campaign headquarters you get a clear glimpse as to why this is happening. Aside from the changing electoral mood, the Tories simply haven’t modernized their campaign machinery.

On election nights, the Liberals run their results off networked Google drives and projection screens. The Tories are still using markers and poster board.

If that’s the difference the public can see, imagine the sophistication gap in the behind-the-scenes campaign infrastructure?

One party has clearly embraced technology in campaigns. The other badly needs to.

A party in free fall

The Tories are now in free fall. The realistic goal can’t be winning the next election. It has to be about minimizing the loss and trying to rebound by 2019.

In the wake of Kathy Dunderdale’s resignation, there was internal party talk of a “30-district strategy” for the 2015 general election. The idea being that the Tories should identify 30 winnable seats, pour their efforts into those and sacrifice the remaining 18 as unwinnable.

It marked a pragmatic recognition that the next election would be a dogfight. 

But that was before the loss in Virginia Waters, before the loss in St. George’s Stephenville East, in Conception Bay South, in Carbonear Harbour Grace, in Humber East, in Trinity Bay de Verde.

Nobody is talking about 30 seats any more.

Feeding the Liberals' momentum

Each byelection win only serves to feed the Liberal momentum and cement the impression that the next election is already decided.

The Tories have shown no ability to stop the Big Red Machine, while the NDP— once poised for a breakthrough — look more and more like a spent political force.

On Tuesday afternoon, NDP leader Lorraine Michael said her goal for the byelections was to get “a satisfactory percentage that shows that people heard our candidates.”

The NDP vote dropped in both Humber East and Trinity Bay de Verde. It was yet another step back from the success of the last provincial election.

The 2011 campaign opened a window for the NDP to modernize and cement itself as, at the very least, the metro alternative to the Progressive Conservatives. But the provincial polls and these byelection results show that window isn’t just slammed shut, it may be shattered and warped beyond repair.

The NDP likes to say it is the only party speaking to the issues that matter to voters. It is becoming increasingly clear the voters don’t agree. Or, even if they like the message, they don’t trust the messenger to wield power. And it isn’t clear what the NDP is doing to change that.

Last night, with a byelection within driving distance of Confederation Building, the NDP leader and at least one of her MHAs spent the night at a town hall about fracking at the Elk’s Club in St. John’s.

But as troubling as these results are for the NDP, they are even worse for the governing Tories.

In the hours before the polls closed, Premier Paul Davis expressed concern that voter apathy could hurt the Tory chances.

But last night wasn’t about voter apathy. It was about voter desertion. And that has to scare the hell out of the Tories.