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This article was published 28/9/2011 (3598 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
BRANDON -- As Greg Selinger's New Democrats head into the final weekend of campaigning ahead of Tuesday's election, they are scrambling to avoid something not seen in more than 40 years -- a caucus without a western Manitoba representative.
With veteran Progressive Conservative MLAs Stu Briese (Agassiz), Cliff Cullen (Spruce Woods), Larry Maguire (Arthur-Virden) and Leanne Rowatt (Riding Mountain) cruising to victories in their ridings, the NDP's Westman hopes rest on Brandon East, held by incumbent NDP MLA Drew Caldwell and Brandon West, vacated by retiring Tory MLA Rick Borotsik.
In 1999, Caldwell won Brandon East by a healthy 2,760 votes. By 2007, however, the margin had dropped to 1,105. That's a 60 per cent decline since 1999, and it's one reason why the Tories are feeling bullish about their chances in the one-time NDP stronghold.
Another reason is the fact Caldwell has been repeatedly shunned from the provincial cabinet table, leaving western Manitoba without a cabinet representative for the first time in several decades.
A failure as education minister, and then a bigger failure as family services minister, Caldwell was removed from cabinet in 2003. Since then, he has been consistently passed over for cabinet appointments.
The fact that Gary Doer, and now Selinger, would rather deprive Westman of cabinet representation than have Caldwell sitting at their cabinet table is a stinging snub that has not gone unnoticed by Brandon East voters.
Tory candidate Mike Waddell, who lost to Caldwell in 2007, has returned for the rematch. The chaplain for both the Brandon Police Service and the Brandon Wheat Kings, Waddell never stopped campaigning after the last election. He has knocked on every door in the riding at least once, is active in the community and has a large campaign team that smells victory.
With the departure of the popular Doer and Tory-favourable changes in the composition of Brandon East voters, this race is too close to call. That's why Selinger has made more than $12 million in spending commitments in the riding in the past two weeks.
Brandon West offers perhaps the most interesting three-way race in the province. In 2007, Borotsik ousted NDP cabinet minister Scott Smith by just 56 votes. Now that Borotsik has retired from politics, Reg Helwer is fighting to keep the riding in Tory hands.
With an impressive business pedigree, Helwer is a candidate out of central casting and a solid cabinet candidate should the Tories form government. He is challenged by NDP candidate Jim Murray and Liberal George Buri, both former chairmen of the Brandon school board.
An intriguing "back story" to this contest is that Murray was widely known as a Conservative and Buri as a New Democrat until this spring. According to several sources, Murray originally sought an uncontested PC nomination in the riding. When the Tories refused, he jumped at the NDP's offer of a guaranteed nomination.
That left Buri, who had planned to run for the NDP, out in the cold. He's now running for the Liberals.
Though Helwer held a clear lead two weeks ago, Murray has narrowed the gap. The wild card in this race is the popular Buri. Liberal votes in Brandon West typically come at the expense of the NDP. If Buri does well at the ballot box, Helwer wins.
Two races to watch north of Westman are in the Dauphin and Swan River constituencies.
In Dauphin, Agriculture Minister Stan Struthers is facing popular Roblin businessman and educator Lloyd McKinney. Changes to the riding's boundaries have shifted pockets of NDP support out of the riding and brought Tory support in. A sure sign the NDP are worried about Struthers is the more than $5 million in promises made during Selinger's almost-weekly trips to the riding.
In Swan River, the last-minute retirement of Rosann Wowchuk left the NDP scrambling for a candidate. They found Mossey River Reeve Ron Kostyshyn, who is struggling to keep pace with Tory candidate Dave Powell, the owner of a Swan River car dealership. As in Dauphin, the frequency of Selinger's visits and the size of his promises are strong indicators that Swan River is in play.
Though conventional inside-the-Perimeter wisdom indicates that Winnipeg is the battleground to watch on election night, it would be wise to also keep your eye on the western Manitoba results. They could determine which party forms our next government.
Deveryn Ross is a Brandon freelance writer.