BRANDON -- They have been low-key campaigns, with the winners widely regarded as foregone conclusions, but the stakes are high Tuesday for Manitoba's four political parties in byelections in the Arthur-Virden and Morris constituencies.
The two ridings are bedrock Tory territory, having been represented by Progressive Conservative MLAs for decades. In the 2011 general election, Larry Maguire received 65.7 per cent of votes cast in Arthur-Virden and won all but three polls. Mavis Taillieu fared even better in Morris, winning every poll and earning 73.6 per cent of votes.
With such strong support for the PCs and polls indicating the party's popularity has increased since the 2011 election, the likelihood of Tory candidates Shannon Martin (Morris) and Doyle Piwniuk (Arthur-Virden) emerging as victors on Tuesday night is as close to a sure thing as it gets.
Tory victories in the two byelections will not impact the balance of power in the legislature -- the New Democrats will still have a comfortable majority -- but the performance of the NDP, PC, Liberal and Green party candidates on Tuesday could have a considerable impact on each of those parties.
With a year's worth of polling suggesting support for Premier Greg Selinger's New Democrats has plummeted throughout the province, a strong showing by Dean Harder (Morris) and Bob Senff (Arthur-Virden) would soothe the nerves of jittery caucus members and supporters who are growing increasingly concerned about the NDP's prospects in the 2016 general election.
If Harder and Senff can capture the level of support the NDP received in the ridings in 2011 (30.2 per cent in Arthur-Virden, 19.3 per cent in Morris), Team Selinger can claim they held their own in ridings they were never expected to win. If support drops significantly, however, it will reinforce concerns about the NDP's future with Selinger as leader. A third-place finish in either riding will be a disaster.
For the Liberals, the challenge is to capture a larger share of the vote than they received in the 2011 election. That should not be difficult, given the party's candidates received just 3.8 per cent in Arthur-Virden and 6.6 per cent in Morris in 2011. If they can match the 20 per cent at which the party is currently polling in rural Manitoba, the Grits will be positioned as a legitimate alternative in the 2016 election.
If they fail to significantly increase their support, however, questions will be raised about the party's future and leader Rana Bokhari's decision to not run in Morris.
For the Green party, the byelections are an opportunity to remain relevant in the province while it searches for a new leader. Acting Leader Alain Landry is running in Morris, while Kate Storey is the candidate in Arthur-Virden. Neither candidate resides in the riding they are running in, but they are two of the party's strongest candidates and are experienced campaigners.
If they finish with more than 10 per cent of votes, it will be a big achievement for the Greens and a vote-splitting concern for the NDP.
For Brian Pallister's Tories, the question isn't whether his candidates will win, but rather by how much. Voter turnout in byelections is typically lower than in general elections, so it is unrealistic to expect Martin and Piwniuk to equal the vote totals garnered by Taillieu and Maguire in 2011. It is realistic, however, to expect the two rookie candidates to come close to matching the percentage of votes cast, at a time support for the PCs is surging.
If Martin and Piwniuk can do that, it will reinforce perceptions the PCs are rolling toward victory in 2016. If they can't, it will slow momentum and revive questions about the commitment of the party's supporters and its readiness to fight an election.
If we only focus on the candidates who win the Morris and Arthur-Virden byelections, we are missing the story. The distribution of votes cast in the contests are the facts we should be following. It has implications for the direction of all four political parties, the future of our premier and the future of the province.
Deveryn Ross is a political commentator in Brandon.