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Liberals don't need to win byelections to rattle Tories

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How much effort should a federal political party put into a byelection it has no chance of winning?

For Canada's three major registered parties, it's essential they show up and make a good showing in the four byelections now expected to be called sometime this fall.

Running a bad candidate or a half-hearted campaign, even when it's in a long-shot riding, is a clear sign of organizational shortcomings and fading overall fortunes. That's blood in the water for the sharks in the media and political opponents.

Still, how much is enough?

Right now, the Liberals and NDP are both devoting a fair amount of attention to Provencher and Brandon-Souris, two of the ridings slated for byelections. Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, in particular, has been active in both seats.

Trudeau visited both ridings in late September. He was back in town this week, as Liberals in Brandon-Souris prepared for a nomination meeting Wednesday night.

Given, by all accounts, both seats are considered to be solid Conservative strongholds, you might wonder what's in it for Trudeau, or any opposition party for that matter.

In these particular ridings, at this particular time in the history of the nation's political narrative, the results of these two byelections will serve as a very important measurement of what's happening in federal politics in general and Liberal fortunes in particular.

Nationally, the polls have been very favourable to Trudeau since he took over in April, with his party running solidly ahead of the Tories and NDP. And yet, almost no one is willing to say out loud these poll results add up to anything concrete.

Eric Grenier of ThreeHundredEight.com, the principal source of qualitative analysis of polling numbers, has noted in his seat projections that even with a slight Liberal lead, the Conservatives would likely still form a minority government.

That's exactly why Brandon-Souris and, to a lesser extent, Provencher will be such interesting byelections, whenever Prime Minister Stephen Harper gets around to calling them. Harper does not want an interesting result in either riding. With the wonky poll results his government is receiving, that's likely why we're still waiting for a byelection date.

Do the Liberals actually have a chance in either seat? It's hard to see a Grit win in a byelection, which typically has lower overall voter turnout. Still, the Liberals have had some success in both ridings. In 1993, Liberal Glen McKinnon won Brandon-Souris, and fellow Grit David Iftody won Provencher.

McKinnon's win was a particularly intriguing story. A former mayor of Virden, McKinnon was arm-twisted into running in Brandon-Souris at the last minute. He hardly campaigned, admitting years later he handed out a few buttons and put up a few signs but did not put a lot of work into a campaign that really had no chance of success.

On election night, with the Liberals sweeping Atlantic Canada and Ontario, poll results starting coming in showing McKinnon was very much in the game.

He ended up winning by 1,000 votes over PC candidate Larry Maguire, the MLA and same candidate now running for the Conservatives in this byelection.

Conventional wisdom would suggest the conditions necessary for McKinnon and Iftody to win are not present now. Both Grits required an unpopular incumbent government, a bad Tory campaign and a fracturing of the right-of-centre vote with both Progressive Conservative and Reform candidates in the hunt.

These days, it's the left-of-centre vote that seems to be split between the Liberals and NDP. The Conservatives don't have to worry about another party eating away its core support. Even so, the Tories know a strong showing in a byelection by any opposition party in an allegedly safe Tory riding does not bode well for the main event.

The last two federal elections were an embarrassment for the Liberals in Brandon-Souris. A fourth-place finish in both contests, with poor organization and candidates. In those battles, the poor performance in Brandon-Souris was very much a reflection of a party in organizational and ideological crisis.

Liberals believe there is reason to be more hopeful this time around. Buoyed by Trudeau's remarkable personal popularity, Brandon Grits are wondering if somehow, 1993-like conditions are returning. Minus the right-wing vote splitting of course.

To be realistic, it is not necessary for the Liberals to win Brandon-Souris. They need only show well, and perhaps cut into the Tory plurality in the riding. A second-place finish in the byelection would be an important moral victory.

There are ridings the Liberals must win outright if they hope to form government again. However, in some ridings, a respectable showing head-to-head with the governing Conservatives is reason enough for optimism.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 10, 2013 A4

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