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NDP machine massacres Tories

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New leader, new and nasty approach to campaigning, same result.

Premier Greg Selinger secured the NDP’s fourth consecutive majority government, an achievement that puts them into rare company in this province’s electoral history.

Let’s be clear, this wasn’t just a win. It was a hands-down massacre of the Tories at the hand of the NDP machine. The Tories not only failed to gain any real ground in the Manitoba legislature, they appear to have lost all but two of the swing seats they had targeted. At this point, holding onto Brandon West and River East, solid Tory seats the NDP targeted in this campaign, is a victory but really only a moral victory.

How the NDP won is hard to say at this point. The sheer magnitude of this majority, in the face of a very real challenge from the Progressive Conservatives, seems almost improbable. After 12 years in power, there was growing concern that a fourth majority was one majority too far. However, the narrative of this election is about the Manitoba Progressive Conservatives losing an opportunity to shake loose the NDP’s hold on power.

The Tories will take some pleasure in the fact that they very nearly matched the NDP in popular vote. However, experienced politicos will tell you hoarding votes in a few ridings — the Tories won with huge pluralities in many of the 21 seats they captured Tuesday night — is no recipe for long-term electoral success.

The result was so crushing, it convinced Tory Leader Hugh McFadyen to fall on his sword by the time the speeches began. Even that seemed so unthinkable just a few months ago. The Tories were well-funded, really the first campaign in a decade where they were going to be able to compete dollar for dollar with the NDP. After 12 years in power, there was some reason to believe voters were tiring of the NDP song and dance. Provincial polls a year before the vote showed the Tories with a lead over the incumbents.

And finally, McFadyen had secured the services of some top-notch federal strategists to run his campaign, operatives that had shown a capacity to snatch safe seats away from other parties regardless of poll result or trend. These operatives bought up every billboard, every bus advertisement and every 30-second spot on live radio broadcasts of the leaders debates. The Tories were in it to win it this time around.

However, in the lead-up to the actual writ, something unusual happened. The favourable poll results turned unfavourable, and McFadyen suddenly ranked a distant second to Selinger in leader approval ratings. Considering how the worm had turned for McFadyen, it was hard to see where the Tory surge was going to come from. McFadyen needed a net gain of nine seats to form government. Late-campaign poll results showed his party slightly behind provincewide and profoundly behind in seat-rich Winnipeg. Despite that, Tory sources continued to say late into the campaign that based on a superior voter identification and get-out-the-vote strategy, they were solidly confident of winning 27 seats. That now seems like a triumph of hope over hard reality.

There were hard feelings over this showing, and McFadyen decided he just couldn’t find a silver lining in this horribly dark cloud. In the final analysis, this was a campaign that failed to take advantage of the opening created by Doer’s departure and Selinger’s early struggles. McFadyen decided this was not enough to stay on.

As bad as things are for the Tories, they are just as rosy for the NDP. By winning his own majority, Selinger has officially stepped out of Gary Doer’s shadow. When he took over the leadership from the incredibly popular, charming Doer, few thought Selinger had the right stuff to win an election as the frontman. Notwithstanding the poor effort by the Tories, Selinger ran a masterful but underwhelming campaign that had a degree of negativity not seen from an incumbent premier in this province.

What lies ahead for the Manitoba legislature? Selinger returns triumphant to face a worsening and increasingly unpredictable economy. His saving grace in this first year may well be upheaval in Tory ranks, as the party’s opinion leaders search for a new leader. Having ditched Stuart Murray after 2003, McFadyen’s departure only serves to give the NDP a realistic shot at a fifth majority government.

Although the legislature will not appear much different than it did when the writ was dropped, this is a stunning result, proof that running and winning an election is an art form. And make no mistake, Manitobans have just witnessed a masterpiece.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

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