BRANDON — After waltzing to victory for most of the last 60 years in Brandon-Souris, the Conservatives stumbled into a win Monday night.
A tense night saw Liberal candidate Rolf Dinsdale leading by a couple hundred votes early on, but advance polls, especially rural ones, appeared to deliver Conservative Larry Maguire a last-minute victory.
With all of the 210 polls reporting, Maguire had 44.1 per cent of the vote to Dinsdale’s 42.7 per cent. Only 400 votes separated them.
"I honestly didn’t know what I’d be doing on Tuesday morning," joked Maguire. "I listened to what the people have said tonight…. We had to work really hard, and we did."
In a brief victory speech around midnight, Maguire emphasized Canada’s strong economy, the trade agreement with the European Union and Western Manitoba’s boom, themes he hammered on throughout the campaign.
The close win is likely to jar Conservatives across the country. The Conservative vote in Brandon-Souris declined by 20 points since the last federal election, when former MP Merv Tweed won nearly two-thirds of the vote.
For years, the riding has been considered one of the safest Tory seats in Canada, where a half-hearted election day effort was plenty. This time, the party had to throw everything at the Westman riding — hundreds of volunteers, negative attack ads, last-minute prime-ministerial appeals. It was just barely enough.
Maguire was stung early on by a botched nomination process and that alienated many soft Tory supporters who chafed at what they felt was meddling by party backroomers.
"This year, we decided that we would change our vote, for no good reason other than what we’ve read," said Barry Diller, a lifelong Tory who’d just voted Monday afternoon in Brandon. "I didn’t like the way the Conservatives chose their member, so we changed our vote this year."
And, the Senate spending scandal was the top issue at doorsteps from Virden to Victoria Avenue.
Meanwhile, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, riding a wave of national popularity, visited the riding three times and pulled big crowds and plenty of buzz.
Waves of polling by Forum Research had Dinsdale with an improbably huge lead over Maguire in the last days of the campaign, but few believed the figures. Dinsdale said the close race shows the Grits can win the next general election, that they fired a "shot across the bow" at Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
"This has been a Conservative riding for a very, very long time. They had 65 per cent of the vote in the last election. We had five per cent," said Dinsdale. "So the fact that we took it down to the wire is something we can all be proud of here in this room."
Byelections are oddities, suffering from low turnout, though turnout was relatively strong in Brandon-Souris at roughly 45 per cent.