Turnaround after ‘full-on battle’ surprises even B.C. Liberals

Vancouver — The Globe and Mail

B.C. Liberal Leader Christy Clark celebrates her party’s victory in the provincial election on May 14, 2013. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

British Columbians voted overwhelmingly to send the Liberal Party back to power Tuesday in one of the most dramatic political comebacks in recent Canadian history.

The election was a stunning turnaround for Premier Christy Clark, although she lost her own seat in Vancouver-Point Grey.

Polling had for months put her far behind NDP Leader Adrian Dix, and many thought a change was inevitable after 12 years of Liberal rule.

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Voters appeared to have grown tired of the governing Liberals. And Ms. Clark, who came back to win the party leadership after leaving her job as a radio hotline host, was never regarded seriously by many. Her critics, including some in her own party, believed she lacked the gravitas necessary to continue as leader.

On the campaign trail, however, she connected with voters, putting on hard hats, hugging heavy equipment operators and repeatedly saying that more than anything she wanted to put British Columbians back to work.

“Tonight we have received a mandate from the people of British Columbia,” Ms. Clark said after fighting her way through a jubilant mob to take the stage and give her acceptance speech. “We will honour what you have bestowed upon us and together we will make British Columbia better.”

At another Vancouver hotel, Mr. Dix conceded defeat in a speech neither he, nor the pollsters, ever expected he’d have to give.

“Never a dull moment in B.C. politics,” he said to a crowd that had gathered expecting to celebrate a victory.

“Elections belong to the voters – and the voters have decided,” said Mr. Dix, with the returns showing the Liberals leading or elected in 50 seats, the NDP, 33, one Green – the first at the provincial level in Canada – and one independent.

Speaking to reporters, Mr. Dix said he won’t decide his own future as leader of the NDP until he has met with the caucus.

At the same time, B.C. political history was made far below the seat totals of the two major parties.

Andrew Weaver captured the Green Party’s first ever seat in the B.C. legislature, winning a three-way race that included cabinet minister Ida Chong in Oak Bay-Gordon Head. And Vicki Huntington became the first independent to be re-elected as an independent since political parties were recognized in 1903.

Sensing the election slipping away, the Liberals fought down to the wire trying to get their vote out as early polls suggested the party’s 12-year reign was over in British Columbia.

“Dig deep. Phone and visit potential voters. It’s full-on battle stations,” Mike McDonald, the Liberal campaign director, said in an e-mail blast to members just an hour before polling stations closed Tuesday.

By then confident NDP workers, buoyed by pollster’s projections of a majority government, were already rehearsing plans for a victory speech by Mr. Dix.

But when the vote results started to pour in and a stunning comeback was suddenly in the making by Ms. Clark, who had led her party back after trailing the NDP by 20 points at the start of the campaign in mid-April.

Word of a Liberal majority set party members cheering, whooping and clapping in the ballroom where supporters had gathered.

“I’m trying to mask my joy right now . . . but I am very happy,” said former federal cabinet minister Stockwell Day, who has taken up the cause of the provincial Liberals.

“This will lead in the history of reversals,” he said.

Former B.C. Finance Minister Colin Hansen said the party always assumed it would be able to close the gap with the NDP.

Mr. Hansen said Ms. Clark had run an “incredible” campaign because she focused relentlessly on economic growth and was engaging with voters.

“That is her real strength. She is a great campaigner and she has proven that over the last four weeks,” he said.

Liberal candidate Sam Sullivan, a former Vancouver mayor, seemed shaken by the unexpected victory.

“Over the past 24 hours I have gone through the five stages of mourning ... I was angry, I negotiated, I tried to bargain my way and eventually I came to a really unhappy acceptance of the death of our political vision and I woke up and somebody had risen from the dead. What a miracle,” said Mr. Sullivan, who won in Vancouver-False Creek.

He said the Liberals won because of Ms. Clark.

“She got so much respect from people; she just kept on that message, kept pushing her vision and people eventually came around to cut through all the trivia that was being floated around and get to the real issue: do we want a secure future, a strong economy and do we want to tackle the debt?” he said.

Mr. Dix, who at times in this election seemed nervous and unsure of himself, on the final day swept across B.C. in an impressive display of logistics and endurance. In 24 hours he traveled 1,700 kilometres and visited 13 communities. But in the end, even that marathon performance wasn’t enough.

Meanwhile, the Conservative vote seemed to collapse completely and even leader John Cummings failed to win his seat.

With reports from Marsha Lederman and Rod Mickleburgh

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