Who’s afraid of Virgina Waters?

It may have been a close race, but the Virgina Waters by-election win is momentous for the provincial Liberals

Virginia Waters was far and away the most tensely fought by-election in recent memory; more than a decade, at least, to hear it told by veteran observers. The stakes were high for everyone involved. But while the narrow Liberal win is momentous (and the Tory loss devastating), we should take care not to draw any especially dramatic conclusions about the general election coming down the pipe next year.

Despite squeaking by her opponent with less than 40 votes, this is a very clear victory for Cathy Bennett and the Liberal party. For as long as I can remember – and I have a fair claim to familiarity here – Liberal campaign organization could best be described as falling somewhere between ‘non-existent’ and ‘an elaborate practical joke’. Wednesday showed that this is clearly no longer the case. Bennett’s campaign was a well-oiled, technically sophisticated machine powered by passionately motivated volunteers, and they scored a victory that solidifies the momentum building up behind the Liberals since they wrapped up their leadership convention last fall. Taking Virginia Waters also gives them a beachhead in the St. John’s metro area, traditionally a Tory heartland and the site of the NDP’s only political hope. We’re always limited in how much we can generalize from a by-election, but the reverberations from Bennett’s win here should be nothing short of thunderous.

The stakes were high here for the NDP, too, although from the outset it was clear they were playing less to win and more to prove that they were still alive in Town. And on that count, their performance Wednesday is less than convincing. Sheilagh O’Leary was a great candidate running a great campaign, but she still landed in a distant third place and almost a full 10% behind the NDP’s showing in 2011. Given that this campaign represented a Dipper dream team, these results should be pretty worrying – they confirm that the party hasn’t recovered from its collapse last October. By now it should be clear that the party’s first order of business, if they are to have any fighting chance at all in the next general election, is to turf Lorraine Michael in her upcoming leadership review. If they keep her on, O’Leary’s results on Wednesday night might be the best numbers the NDP sees until well beyond the 2015 election.

Blue Wave Crashing

But the real story here is the PC campaign; losing this race is like a smack in the face. The governing party has been on the ropes for a while now, but in the last few months it had become possible to imagine that a reversal of fortunes was in the works. Interim Premier Tom Marshall is markedly more popular than Kathy Dunderdale, and a large part of his tenure so far has involved distancing the government from the ‘Dunderdale Era’: they’ve stepped back from Bill 29, they’re promising a review of the province’s electrical system and oversight on the Muskrat Falls project (which may look good on paper, even if the practical merits are dubious), and they’re phasing out student loans in favour of grants. Say what you will, but the government at least appears to be actively working to put itself back in the public’s good books; if nothing else, this is a welcome change from having it sneer at us.

It was in this vein that the by-election also saw the return of ex-Premier Danny Williams as PC spokesman, breaking the long stretch of mostly indifferent silence he’d maintained through Dunderdale’s time in office. Keeping up the trend of breaking with the past, Williams even came out a few days before the vote and blasted Bill 29 as “a mistake.” Never mind that focusing on Bill 29 as an object of public scorn conveniently bypasses a slew of deeper systemic issues in the province’s freedom-of-information regime, many of which can be traced back directly to Williams’ own autocratic tenure. No politician has ever promised to deliver an honest history lesson.

But Williams was such a prominent fixture on the campaign trail that he even started eclipsing Danny Breen, the actual candidate standing for election. A photo tweeted by The Telegram’s James McLeod stands out here as emblematic; on a campaign stop at a Ches’s in the district, we see Williams sitting at the table with voters and Breen standing back awkwardly outside the circle. Apparently the campaign was only big enough for one Danny.

The Spring of Hope & the Winter of Discontent

Given their heavy reliance on Williams during the by-election, it was obvious that the Tories were deeply anxious about the way the political winds were blowing. But more than this, the sudden omnipresence of their erstwhile champion makes the narrow PC loss all the more devastating. The party was obviously not totally crushed – they did manage to bridge a significant gap in the polls in a very short time, and who knows what would have happened if the race had dragged on another week – but it is a very serious setback. Despite jettisoning one of the least popular Premiers in the province’s history, rolling out a number of conciliatory policy initiatives, and trotting out a political superstar whose name alone was once enough to steamroll all opposition, the Tories were unable to mount a defence against a resurgent Liberal party. If (and when) Frank Coleman takes over the Premier’s office in July, he’ll have his work cut out for him.

Of course, it’s too soon to declare the Tories dead in the water – I have no doubt Williams was very sincere when he channelled the ghost of Khrushchev Wednesday night and declared that “we will bury them.” But it’s clear now that Danny’s coattails no longer guarantee a victory, and that there will be no ‘safe’, untouchable Tory seats in the next provincial election. They’re now fully on the defensive and they’ll have trouble recruiting good candidates. It’s open season on the provincial government.

From all appearances, the blue tide is ebbing and it looks less and less likely that anything can stop a red tide from coming in.

Drew Brown is a 2nd year PhD student in Political Science at the University of Alberta. He ran for the Liberal Party in the 2007 and 2011 provincial elections.

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