The provincial Conservatives lost a crucial by-election in Virginia Waters on Wednesday, but not for lack of effort. The could not possible have pulled out any more stops to try and win the seat in the last two weeks of the campaign.
Even on polling day the Conservatives mounted a prodigious effort and the last couple of days before the final vote, the Conservatives had every cabinet minister, caucus member, and political staffer doing whatever it took to find every possible vote.
They came close, but the Conservatives lost
And that simple fact will have enormous implications.
The Conservatives owe Breen big time
Let us start with the implications for Conservative candidate Danny Breen. The Conservative establishment seduced him into running even though his first love was always municipal politics.
Had Breen won, there’d be no problem. Now he has to go back to St. John’s city council having fought a good fight but ultimately as the loser. His credibility with voters will take a hit. His political enemies on council will now peck away at that sore between now and the next election.
That’s probably the saddest part about this by-election. Breen’s fundamentally a good guy and he stands to make a major contribution to the city. He can still do it, but now Breen has to rebuild his base of support and fight off the skeets in the process. The provincial Conservatives owe Breen a huge debt of gratitude. They should pay it quickly.
Whatever loss Breen feels, it pales in comparison to the double-barrelled shotgun blast to the ego Danny Williams visited on himself. He waded into the by-election and made it not about Danny Breen but about himself.
Williams appealed to voters about the need to recognise what the Conservatives had done for them since 2003. He put his legacy on the line and voters rejected it. The guy who once could win an election without even showing up scrambled like he never scrambled before and came up short.
Williams was talking rubbish to reporters on Wednesday night with his tales of coming close after polls showed the Conservatives 15 points behind. He can release the polls if he wants, but frankly, every one else in the province expected the Conservatives would win handily. They had the advantage of incumbency: they have held this seat since 2003. The last Conservative to hold the seat was Kathy Dunderdale, Williams hand-picked successor.
Danny Williams failed on Wednesday. There’s no way to sugar-coat his failure.
That failure also jeopardizes any plans Williams might have to install Frank Coleman as the next Premier. Coleman has been running an invisible campaign, thus far. He’s surrounded himself with a campaign team that, to be generous, has seen better days.
A win in Virginia Waters was supposed to be the first major step in what Williams was calling renewal. Now Williams doesn’t have a victory of any kind. He and his associates are left with what has been so far an incredibly weak Conservative leadership. There are no signs they will be able to inject any life into Coleman. None of that bodes well for the next general election
Organizational Strength versus Weakness
Anyone who followed the media reports from the party headquarters on Wednesday night got a little insight into why things turned out the way they did. The poll-by-poll results coming back from scrutineers were the official counts completed by the returning officer in each poll.
Some reporters seem to think those numbers aren’t official. They are. The lag between what the parties and what the chief electoral officer reflects nothing but the slowness of the CEO’s administrative system.
In this case, the slowness of the Conservative reporting and the discrepancy between the Liberal and Conservative numbers reflects the differences in the parties’ internal organizations. Clearly, the Conservatives were having problems getting timely, accurate information. Odds are that was reflected all the way through the campaign.
Another clue to the differences in the two parties on the ground came in the advance polls. The Liberals clearly won the advance vote. They were organized and ready for it. By the looks of things, the Conservatives weren’t.
Let’s translate that to the next provincial election. What the Liberals did was easily scalable. That is, the Liberals can run that kind of campaign in all 48 seats. Their voter identification and their ground game were incredibly modern and efficient for a party that only a couple of years ago was struggling to stay alive.
All of that came out of the leadership contest. They’ve clearly learned their lessons. Virginia Waters was the third successful by-election in about 18 months. The last two, in particular, a are evidence that the party has an internal election organization that is ready to go.
The Conservatives, on the other hand, won’t be able to fight a general election with the kind of intensity in every seat they just deployed in Virginia Waters. It took the Premier, the cabinet, the entire caucus, the former Premier, a raft of his friends, and an army of volunteers to round up less than 2,000 votes in a metro St. John’s seat. They just can’t do the same thing physically even in a smattering of seats in a general election.
Unfortunately for the Conservatives, the rigged leadership contest just won’t offer them the chance to develop a new group of trained, experienced campaigners who will be ready to fight a general election against an aggressive, determined, and organized opponent. Basically, the Tories have grown complacent after two elections against weak parties. Putting in the fix for Frank Coleman may assure the continued influence of the people who have controlled the party since 2003, but what Danny and the boys used to do up against weakened, demoralised parties in 2007 and 2011 just doesn’t cut it any more.
Strong NDP showing
The New Democrats may have suffered from their own leadership racket last fall, but clearly the party could put in enough of a show in metro St. John’s to come in a respectable third place. Twenty-one percent is nothing to sneeze at. Clearly, the NDP lost a chunk of their vote from the last general election – 1708 in 2011 versus 1021 in 2014 – but that’s not surprising. Opinion polls have shown a shift in NDP support in metro St. John’s.
Based on that result, the NDP should still put in a strong showing in the metro seats in the next general election. They may not be able to hang onto all their seats but the NDP will ensure that the metro seats remain a fight for the Conservatives. That’s continued bad news since the Conservatives have been able to count on winning St. John’s seats in elections since Confederation. Those days are over, though, as the 2011 general election showed. That was – if you recall – the first time the Conservatives formed a majority government without winning a majority of townie seats.
The proof of any pudding is in the eating and when it comes to electoral puddings, the Liberals have been feasting lately. The win in Virginia Waters will strengthen the caucus in the House of Assembly during the current session. This win doesn;t just add one more seat: it brings into the House one of the new faces from the leadership contest. Cathy Bennett grew immensely during the leadership. She is now an experienced campaigner with unearthly energy and determination.
Bennett is a political machine of a kind seldom seen anywhere, ever. She is relentless. Give her a chance to learn how to perform in the the House and Bennett will soon be scoring more political points for the Liberals at the expense of the Conservatives. Unless something goes radically off the current track, the Liberals will continue to strengthen while the Conservatives struggle through their own internal problems.
And when the general election comes, Bennett is the kind of politician who can make a substantial contribution to the province-wide campaign, not just her own district. Her profile is just that high. That’s pretty much what voters saw on budget day, oddly enough, when the Conservatives handed Bennett a political present with their plan to implement full-day kindergarten in the province.
The Conservatives should have won the Virginia Waters by-election. They didn’t. Coming a close second doesn’t protect the Conservatives against the repercussions that the loss will bring.