High-stakes byelections

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National Post, Friday, October 30, 2009

There are four byelections coming up on Monday — two in Quebec, one in Nova Scotia and another in British Columbia — and the Liberals could come in third in all four of them. In both languages and on both coasts.

In fairness, they were third or even worse in three of them in the 2008 general election, but fairness has nothing to do with politics, and the truth is they haven’t improved their standing with voters.

In New Westminster-Coquitlam in B.C., it’s strictly a two-way race between Fin Donnelly of the NDP and Diana Dilworth of the Conservatives. The Libs are completely out of the game. It’s a very competitive race, but the NDP should hold Dawn Black’s former seat by about three to five points. The NDP have done a good job of making the harmonized sales tax into their ballot issue.

In Nova Scotia, it’s also a two-way race between the Conservatives and NDP, with Scott Armstrong trying to reclaim Bill Casey’s former seat of Cumberland-Colchester-Musquodoboit Valley, while Mark Austin is staking a strong NDP claim with help from the new provincial government. The Liberals have tried to make the case that Stephen Harper was mean to Casey in kicking him out of caucus, but Casey’s name isn’t on the ballot. That was last year, when he got 69% of the vote, and the Tories finished in single digits and in third place behind the Dippers, while the Libs were fourth. This time, the inherent brand equity should be enough to push the Conservatives across the finish line about five points ahead of the NDP. But the Tories will be the first to acknowledge that it’s been a closer race than they bargained for. This is a test for Peter MacKay as the regional warlord. He needs to win this one.

Hochelaga in the east end of Montreal is a Bloc stronghold which they won by 30 points over the Liberals in the general election. And the only question is who will finish second to former Parti Québécois cabinet minister Daniel Paillé. With the abrupt departure of Denis Coderre as chief Quebec organizer, the Liberals have no ground game and their candidate, Robert David, could be third behind Jean-Claude Rocheleau of the NDP, which has invested in the riding in the hope of finishing second.

But the real story on Monday night could play out down river in Montmagny-l’Islet-Kamouraska-Rivière-du-Loup. This is an extremely tight race, too close to call, between the Bloc’s Nancy Gagnon and the Conservatives’ Bernard Généreux. Radio-Canada is calling it “the Battle of the Lower St. Lawrence.”

The Bloc have held the riding since 1993, and won it by 15 points over the Conservatives in the general election, so they should be heavily favoured. Then why has Gilles Duceppe been in the riding at least three times? When he went to a CEGEP in La Pocatière the other day, only about 25 students turned up.

This is in a town where Généreux is the outgoing mayor, and where he has deep connections with the provincial Liberals. There are three provincial seats covered by the federal riding, all of them now held by the Quebec Liberals, all of whom are supporting Généreux, with the clear approval of Premier Jean Charest.

With the help of the Big Red Machine, the Conservatives have built an impressive ground game and GOTV (Get Out the Vote) organization for election day. Their lead organizers are Joseph Soares, a young Tory bright light who until recently ran the Quebec desk in the PM’s office, and Ghyslain Maltais, a former member of the legislature from the North Shore across the St. Lawrence River. He is Lawrence Cannon’s principal organizer and the Foreign Affairs Minister was in the riding last week. Cannon has his own roots in the region — his grandfather Chubby Power, the legendary chief organizer of Mackenzie King, was the MP for Kamouraska. And Cannon, himself a former provincial Liberal, has a strong personal relationship with Charest.

At this point, no one would be surprised if the Conservatives stole this seat. If they did, it would be a game changer.

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