High-profile candidate improves odds

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The resignation of former cabinet minister Scott Fielding in June meant the Progressive Conservative government would have to schedule a byelection in the Kirkfield Park constituency by Dec. 13. The NDP has since nominated correctional officer Logan Oxenham, a first-time candidate, to carry its standard.

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Opinion

The resignation of former cabinet minister Scott Fielding in June meant the Progressive Conservative government would have to schedule a byelection in the Kirkfield Park constituency by Dec. 13. The NDP has since nominated correctional officer Logan Oxenham, a first-time candidate, to carry its standard.

A common through-line regarding the PCs was that poor polling numbers in Winnipeg would make it difficult for them to find a high-quality candidate willing to run as a sacrificial lamb. This is what I thought. And NDP wags speculated that Premier Heather Stefanson was delaying calling the byelection because she couldn’t convince anyone to run for her party.

But these predictions have been proven wrong as the Tories have found a strong candidate: former Charleswood-Tuxedo-Westwood councillor and mayoral contender Kevin Klein will be acclaimed on Nov. 14.

Jessica Lee / Winnipeg Free Press files

Former city councillor and mayoral candidate Kevin Klein will carry the Progressive Conservative banner in the upcoming Kirkfield Park byelection.

Will Klein’s entrance affect the race in Kirkfield Park?

To answer this, we need to think about why people vote the way they do. They do so for many reasons, but just to simplify things: in any individual constituency race in Canada, voters may cast their ballots primarily to support a party, or primarily to support a candidate.

Parties play a crucial role in the politics of Canada and Manitoba, so it is no surprise that many Canadians cast what is called a party vote: they vote to support a party, with little reference to the local candidate running.

Sometimes people are swayed by party leaders or the policy platforms parties present to them; sometimes, they’re just strong partisans. In these cases, the identity of the local candidate doesn’t necessarily matter to the outcome.

But politics in Canada and Manitoba is also unavoidably candidate-centred: this is why, in every election, we are confronted with throngs of lawn signs with candidates’ names on them, and why parties invest so much effort into recruiting good candidates and trying to weed out potentially bad ones.

Some voters make their decision based primarily on the candidate. Most elected politicians in Canada are concerned with building what’s called a personal vote: a bloc of voters who support them personally, rather than on the basis of their party affiliation.

MPs build their personal votes by working to represent the interests and concerns of their constituents, by helping constituents with their service needs and concerns, and by being as present as possible in the lives of their constituents by attending and participating in local events and functions.

All this is why incumbent politicians often have a big advantage in their re-election campaigns.

This contrast between the party vote and the candidate vote sheds some light on how Klein’s entrance into the Kirkfield Park race will shake things up.

With respect to the party vote: the PCs are polling poorly in Winnipeg; Probe Research’s most recent polling indicates the PCs are badly trailing the NDP within the city limits, with 52 per cent and 25 per cent indicating they would vote for the NDP and the PCs, respectively.

The expectation is that in a straight party-focused race in Kirkfield Park, even with its recent history of electing PC MLAs, the Tories would get their behinds handed to them. With an unremarkable candidate, that would almost certainly be the case.

But the candidate-focused vote could help to make up this disadvantage. Klein has the potential to attract a significant number of personal votes and, in doing so, counter the PCs’ current unpopularity. This is for two reasons.

First, Klein can draw on four years as the incumbent councillor for the area covered by Kirkfield Park. I have no idea whether Klein was a diligent service representative during his time as councillor, but if he was, he will be able to draw on significant goodwill from these efforts in his current campaign.

Second, Klein enjoys significant name recognition, given both his time as councillor and his run in the recent Winnipeg mayoral election, in which he finished third. While his mayoral campaign was unsuccessful, Klein’s profile was given a boost, and that name recognition could translate into support in the Kirkfield Park byelection.

More compellingly: in the mayoral race, Klein’s campaign effectively focused on the issues of crime and public safety, which, again according to Probe polling, are currently by far the biggest concerns of Winnipeggers. Klein’s anti-crime bona fides are a good fit with the PC government, which is also currently unveiling measures designed to address public concerns about crime.

Klein is uniquely well positioned to run a public-safety-oriented campaign that could wind up giving Oxenham a run for his money.

Make no mistake: the PC party is unpopular in Winnipeg, and Klein has his work cut out for him in Kirkfield Park. But with a high-quality, high-profile candidate who is able to effectively speak to an issue that is of great concern to Winnipeggers, the PCs might end up holding on to the seat.

Royce Koop is a professor of political studies at the University of Manitoba and academic director of the Centre for Social Science Research and Policy.

History

Updated on Thursday, November 10, 2022 10:19 AM CST: Corrects spelling of Logan Oxenham's name

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