The fight for the Newfoundland turf held by former premier Kathy Dunderdale is shaping up to be more of a pitched all-party battle than a typically dull byelection.
Politicians of every stripe in the vote Wednesday for the St. John’s-area district of Virginia Waters have something to prove.
“They’re up against a mood for change,” pollster Don Mills said of the governing Progressive Conservatives who have held majority power since 2003.
Mills, the chairman and CEO of Halifax-based Corporate Research Associates, said the Tories also face a recent surge by the Opposition Liberals.
“We have had a move to the Liberal party over the last year that has been nothing short of stunning,” he said.
And the third-party New Democrats, after free-falling from contention following a public leadership spat last fall that split the caucus, would relish a byelection win to eclipse that self-defeating episode, he added.
“But it would look like it will be the Liberal party’s riding to lose at this point, even though it was a PC riding in the past.”
Dunderdale resigned Jan. 24 after a dramatic slide in approval ratings and the loss of two government members who questioned her leadership. She had held the top job since former premier Danny Williams suddenly quit politics in late 2010.
She stepped down as the member for Virginia Waters on Feb. 28.
Contending in the byelection are Progressive Conservative Danny Breen, a St. John’s city councillor; Liberal candidate Cathy Bennett, a businesswoman who ran unsuccessfully for the party leadership last fall; and NDP hopeful Sheilagh O’Leary, a former St. John’s city councillor who ran unsuccessfully for mayor last September.
Stephen Tomblin, a political scientist at Memorial University of Newfoundland, said a win for the Liberals would be a major momentum builder.
“That would be a huge victory for them,” he said. “The NDP of course are in many ways comparable to the Conservatives. They’re internally divided and they’ve had all kinds of problems with people crossing the floor.”
In recent months, two Tory members who had left the government benches became Liberals. Two former New Democrat members sat first as Independents after falling out with Leader Lorraine Michael before also joining the Liberals.
“As a result of that, I think people are really kind of confused,” Tomblin said. “I mean, what do these parties stand for?”
Voters appear to be tuning out as political pragmatism or even opportunism trump in-depth policy discussions, he added.
“We’re not really having the kinds of discussions that we deserve, that are necessary if we’re actually going to address issues ... or even discuss possible solutions to problems people are facing.”
That vacuum is increasingly filled by talk of personalities, said Tomblin, especially when it comes to Williams. The still popular former premier has come out of political hibernation since Dunderdale stepped down to offer high-profile support for Breen.
“In many respects, he has kind of broken his own promise or his suggestion that premiers who go away shouldn’t stay in the limelight,” Tomblin said.
Williams told reporters last week that he has, indeed, breached his own stated policy that ex-premiers should “shut up and go away.”
But this byelection is especially important, he said, stressing the economic growth of the last decade that has recently hit historic highs.
Mills said the Williams factor is a powerful Tory asset that makes it a tough race to call.
“He is the wild card in this byelection. No question.”
With Virginia Waters vacant, the Progressive Conservatives have 33 seats in the legislature compared to 11 Liberals and three New Democrats.