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The bloody battle for Brandon-Souris

Circumstances have conspired to turn byelection into barometer of national mood

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 22/11/2013 (2376 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Brandon-Souris should have been a Tory cakewalk.

It's a riding the Conservatives have held for all but four of the last 60 years; one they won with nearly two-thirds of the vote in the last election; one few expected to turn into a messy, neck-and-neck throwdown after backbench MP Merv Tweed suddenly quit last summer.

Larry Maguire is well-known in the riding.

BRUCE BUMSTEAD / BRANDON SUN ARCHIVES

Larry Maguire is well-known in the riding.

 

Instead, Brandon-Souris has earned national attention, in part because the Tories could suffer a damaging loss to Justin Trudeau's Liberals on Monday, and because the riding has become a barometer for every current provincial and national political story -- the Senate expenses scandal, meddling by backroom Conservatives in the Prime Minister's Office, the Justin effect and even the provincial NDP's PST hike.

In the days leading up to the vote, the battle has turned nasty as the Tories try to bolster their base. Conservative candidate Larry Maguire has mailed out flyers claiming Trudeau would make marijuana more available to kids and slagging Liberal candidate Rolf Dinsdale for playing in a punk band with a raunchy name. They were followed by an unusual letter from Prime Minister Stephen Harper, which was dropped into mailboxes all over the riding, that begs voters to elect Maguire instead of Dinsdale, who Harper said returned to Brandon only to run.

"The strongest candidate is Mr. Maguire," Harper said during a visit to Winnipeg Friday. "He is the only one with roots in the riding."

If Dinsdale, as the surprise frontrunner, is now on the hot seat, Maguire and a messy nomination battle dominated the first half of the campaign.

Maguire, a respected provincial Tory MLA from Elgin, became the party's acclaimed nominee after Tweed's former assistant, Chris Kennedy, was disqualified for mailing in his nomination papers late and forgetting his $1,000 deposit cheque.

Federal Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau and candidate Rolf Dinsdale hold old posters of their politician fathers. Dinsdale believes he can steal the traditional Tory riding away from the Harper government.

COLIN CORNEAU / BRANDON SUN ARCHIVES

Federal Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau and candidate Rolf Dinsdale hold old posters of their politician fathers. Dinsdale believes he can steal the traditional Tory riding away from the Harper government.

A courier tracking invoice confirmed the papers arrived late and several Kennedy supporters have since acknowledged he botched the process, but Kennedy repeatedly denied he'd missed the deadline. Some Tories suspected underhanded party meddling ensured the establishment candidate snagged the nomination.

Maguire's 1,400 new memberships would almost certainly have given him a nomination victory, but the shemozzle reinforced the perception of top-down party micro-managing from Ottawa.

"Mr. Harper and his party have brought politics to a new, nasty low in this country, and it is catching up with them," Trudeau said in an open letter to Brandon-Souris voters, which was posted online Friday. "He wants you to elect a representative who will work for him, not for you."

During debates, Dinsdale has even suggested -- with some credibility, given modest Liberal fortunes in Western Canada -- that if voters elect him, he'll have a shot at cabinet.

"When the Liberals form the government in 2015, I'll have a very active role in that party," he told voters. "I can't say for certain, but likely not from a backbench position."

Asked why he won't be just another Tory backbencher, Maguire said he'll be able to hit the ground running in Ottawa without needing time to get up to speed on policies that matter to the riding, such as proper water and sewer service, some highly technical agriculture and livestock issues and the implementation of the new trade deal with the European Union.

"You fight like heck in caucus for the things your constituents need," said Maguire.

As the Arthur-Virden MLA for nearly 15 years, Maguire also has deep roots in the riding. During a coffee chat with a reporter at a Tim Hortons, Maguire ran into his former Grade 5 teacher and a local riding association board member. Hugs and handshakes ensued. Later, when Trudeau visited a seniors home in Brandon, he shook hands with one of Maguire's relatives, and the grandmother of NDP candidate Cory Szczepanski.

Those family ties, plus a decade attending beef producers' meetings at the Oak Lake Legion, talking ag policy with chamber members and building a network is tough to beat, especially in a byelection where turnout could be everything.

The Liberals have the momentum, if a series of polls from Forum Research are any indication. The latest one, done just more than a week ago, has the Liberals leading with 44 per cent support, an eight point lead over the Conservatives.

Dinsdale has a name everyone recognizes and reveres, thanks to his father Walter Dinsdale's legacy as an 11-term Conservative MP. Though he considers Brandon his hometown, Dinsdale, with his hoodies and hipster jeans, is vulnerable to the oft-repeated charge that he's really from Toronto. And the Liberals also have little party infrastructure to rely on, having finished last in the previous federal election and poorly in the ones before. Dinsdale's campaign manager is a Parliament Hill staffer and the party has sent in additional expertise.

Meanwhile, the Tories boast the second-richest riding association in Manitoba and have required little babysitting from Ottawa, despite a brief visit by Harper's deputy chief of staff, Jenni Byrne. Maguire's campaign manager is a local farm equipment executive and the party's election day co-ordinator is the same one who helped MLA Reg Helwer eke out a victory in Brandon West in the last provincial election. The Tories, despite the nomination mess, still have a plethora of volunteers stationed in nearly every town in the riding -- the kind of volunteers that, as one Tory operative put it, know every name on the voters list and how to shoo them to the polls.

But a strong ground game may not be enough to counter the Justin effect.

Trudeau has made three trips to Brandon and has been greeted like celebrity astronaut Chris Hadfield, drawing big crowds and a buzz that many said they hadn't seen since his father's days.

During one visit, as Trudeau crossed Victoria Avenue, a young woman pushing a stroller stopped him to take a 'selfie' photo, and then squealed as she showed it to a reporter.

The Justin effect has helped siphon votes away from the Tories, but also the NDP, who typically run second in the riding and are now contending with some strategic voting, despite their share of visits by NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair. Szczepanski, a young welder and union activist, says he's also hearing, at least once a day on the doorstep, about the provincial PST hike -- unpopular in rural Manitoba and another reason the NDP may be trailing badly in Brandon-Souris.

"I knew I had an uphill battle, I just didn't expect it would be against a Liberal," said Szczepanski with a laugh. "They're talking about having conversations. They're talking about optimism.

"They talking about change. But there's no real plan."

 

maryagnes.welch@freepress.mb.ca

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