Klein’s narrow victory highlights troubles for both Tories, NDP
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In the Kirkfield Park byelection result, Premier Heather Stefanson can see both her political demise and her salvation.
In terms of demise, the result — a very narrow victory by Progressive Conservative candidate Kevin Klein Tuesday night — is a continued reminder that Tory support in Winnipeg is very weak and may be her undoing in the next general election.
Previously held by cabinet minister Scott Fielding, Kirkfield Park should have been a cakewalk, particularly given that the Tories were running Klein, a former city councillor and mayoral candidate with name recognition. Instead, it was a see-saw affair that had NDP candidate Logan Oxenham in the lead late in the vote counting.
Squeaking out an unofficial 158-vote win in Kirkfield Park is still a win, but it was not a clean win.
The nagging reality coming out of this byelection is that far more voters in Kirkfield Park supported candidates other than Klein. Unofficial tallies have Klein capturing just 37 per cent of the 6,372 votes that were cast; in the 2016 and 2019 general elections, Fielding never failed to win less than 50 per cent of votes cast.
Yes, voter turnout was low (as is the case in byelections), but the Tories retained Kirkfield Park only because anti-Tory voters split their support between the NDP and Liberals, the latter of which recorded a remarkably strong showing.
In a byelection that saw less than two-thirds of normal turnout — which has consistently been more than 10,000 ballots, or close to 70 per cent of all registered voters — Liberal candidate Rhonda Nichol got 1,741 votes, which is more than her party received in the 2019 general election.
In that regard, Kirkfield Park shares some important characteristics with Fort Whyte, which was the scene of a byelection earlier this year.
In March, Tory Obby Khan won by about 200 votes but — even with turnout that was down by 30 per cent from normal levels — the Liberals managed to capture nearly twice as many votes as they did in the 2019 general election.
With numbers like that floating around, this byelection serves as a chilling reminder to Tories holding down more competitive and vulnerable seats in other parts of Winnipeg they will be facing extreme political peril next fall.
Fortunately for Tories, the one thing that people in politics share regardless of party affiliation is the ability to find optimism even in the most dire scenarios. Today, that optimism is anchored by the knowledge that even with weaker Tory support, there was some very favourable vote-splitting.
And in that, we can see Stefanson’s salvation.
Many a government — even majority governments — have survived elections where their political opponents effectively and efficiently split their votes. The federal Liberal government, for example, won a minority mandate in the 2021 election without capturing the largest number of votes on a national basis.
The Liberals were still able to capture the most seats for two main reasons; first, because Conservative support was too concentrated in Western Canada; and because the far-right People’s Party of Canada had its best showing ever, and that was just enough to split the vote in about two dozen ridings.
Can Stefanson take a page out of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s electoral strategy?
Tories in this province have always prayed for strong Liberal support like farmers pray for rain. Not enough to actually form government, of course, but sufficiently robust that it stops the NDP from winning.
In both Fort Whyte and Kirkfield Park, the Liberals showed that when they focus their energies and resources on a single riding, they can make some waves. It is unclear at this time whether that same level of performance can be mustered when the Liberal party — which suffers from a lack of financial and strategic capital — is waging battle across 57 ridings.
As much as a Liberal surge comforts Tories, it torments New Democrats.
The Liberal result in Kirkfield Park could have been based on the strength of the candidate — a veteran nurse with a strong narrative on health care — than a provincewide trend. Still, the NDP brain trust will no doubt see this byelection as the one they really should have won.
Although Kirkfield Park was a safe Tory riding when Fielding represented it, the NDP held the riding for nearly a decade. The byelection result raises questions about whether the support the NDP enjoys in polls now may be too fragile to hold up in a general election.
One final note of optimism for Tories, one in particular.
Had they lost the seat, there was a real possibility that forces within the party would have started to mobilize to remove Stefanson as leader. Although she is, in no way, the cause of all of the Tories’ woes, she has also shown that she is not the solution. At least not yet.
Tory support is certainly bending, but not breaking. And the NDP haven’t shown they are capable of a breakthrough.
Rather than settle anything, Kirkfield Park has ensured that the questions dogging both parties will linger right up to, and into, the general election.
Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.
Updated on Wednesday, December 14, 2022 3:15 PM CST: Typo fixed