Kathy Dunderdale told reporters on Tuesday, while the polls were still open mind you, that the by-election results would be no big thing.
Life would go on.
The world would turn.
And the Conservatives had two years left in their mandate.
That’s when everyone in the province understood that the provincial Conservatives had already conceded defeat in the Carbonear-Harbour Grace by-election.
Unfortunately for Dunderdale, though, the election result means something. Here’s what.
Yes. It is a big deal.
For the Conservatives, this loss confirms the polls: people don’t like the government party. They don’t like them a lot. Even as personally popular a guy as Jerome Kennedy could not turn things around by campaigning personally for his old constituency assistant. It didn’t do any good. Liberal Sam Slade took the district by more than 450 votes over his nearest rival, Conservative Jack Harrington.
There was lots of chatter from the commentariat on Tuesday night about Carbonear-Harbour Grace being historically a Liberal district. Well, it has been Liberal, except for the times it hasn’t been.
This is not Ferryland, where even Jesus Himself could not get elected unless he wore Conservative Blue. This is one of those seats where the measure is not the party that has won it more often but side of the House on which the winning candidate sits.
Voters in Carbonear-Harbour Grace and its related old districts have gone with the government side with one exception since 1949. Between 1975 and 1982, they went with a fellow named Rod Moores of the Joe Smallwood Party, a.k.a the Liberal reform Party.
This time out, voters thumbed their nose at the government party and opted for an opposition member. This is a big deal on those grounds alone. Now it’s also the first by-election in the district since 1949, either but that little statistic also reinforces the notion that the voters in Carbonear-Harbour Grace tend to stick with one crowd until that crowd loses general favour.
This loss is a big deal for Kathy Dunderdale’s leadership.
It;s not big because people say it is.
It is a big deal.
Oram cracks the party open again
It is so big a deal that the Conservative Party’s internal fractures have now exploded into full public view. Former Conservative cabinet minister Paul Oram tweeted a comment on Tuesday night that it is time “for our party to take a hard look at the future. Enough is enough.”
Oram has now said publicly what many have been chattering about privately for a year or so. This very much like the situation Oram exposed in 2009 when he quit the party suddenly amid admissions that the Conservative’s were guilty of unsustainable public spending, that is of financial mismanagement. Once he said it, both the Premier at the time and his finance minister admitted it, just as Kathy Dunderdale has admitted the mismanagement.
No one should be surprised over the next couple of weeks if more Conservatives start grumbling more openly about the by-election loss, Jerome Kennedy’s hasty resignation, and yet another crappy poll for Kathy Dunderdale and the Conservatives.
All are possible.
Inertia is too powerful
For the New Democrats, the by-election is confirmation that the party Establishment had done nothing since 2011 to build a party capable of capitalising on the strong results the NDP had in public opinion polls up to a few months ago. The NDP looked good on paper, but in practice, they were nothing but smoke.
Again, there was much chatter on Tuesday night among the Twitterati about what might have happened if caucus hadn’t tried to overthrow leader Lorraine Michael. Well, the media coverage would have been different in the run up: the press gallery would still be touting the NDP as a potential victor.
But on the ground, the NDP would likely still have polled their historic third in a three way race. The reason is because the party Establishment had done nothing to organize for the by-election. The party didn’t name a candidate until the campaign had started. The other two parties were way ahead by then.
The lack of by-election readiness confirms the complaint from dissident New Democrats about the lack of election readiness generally, especially outside St. John’s. In order to stand a chance at forming government, the NDP needed to grow outside of their St. John’s base and in a couple of union-heavy districts outside Capital City. Even if they wanted to shift their sights far lower - and these days more realistically – to try to become the official opposition, the NDP will have to pull up their socks.
The Fundamentals Matter
The Liberals can look on this by-election as further proof that the renewal is working. As SRBP noted a few weeks ago, the real value of the leadership fight for the Liberal Party was in the practical business of campaigning.
The word inside the party is that the three leading candidates tossed some of their key people into the campaign on top of the existing party organization. They worked their contacts and used their honed get-out-the-vote machines to do exactly what the name says. If the Liberals can keep that going, then the Conservatives will have to dread every by-election through to the next general election, scheduled in 2015.
The win in Carbonear-Harbour Grace will reinforce the sense among Liberals that they are running again with the tide. That psychological boost will magnify their accomplishments. In many respects, the sense of being on the upswing will help people in the party keep their confidence if they run into the sorts of bumps and hiccups all growing parties experience. In other words, when they feel like winners, people don;t get demoralized easily. And when they look like winners, others look at them and don’t see little flaws and blemishes. That was very true for the Conservatives before 2003 and things will likely be the same for the Liberals in the run-up to 2015.