When 28-year-old political newcomer Kody Blois won the federal Liberal nomination in Kings-Hants in May, he immediately sought the endorsement of former MP Scott Brison.
Mr. Brison, who was unbeatable in this sprawling rural riding outside Halifax for more than 20 years, until his retirement early this year, did more than give him just that. He has canvassed door to door with Mr. Blois, introduced him to the local Liberal base and taught him the art of campaigning in small Maritime towns where family and community connections matter a lot.
Mr. Blois knows well that without Mr. Brison’s support, getting to Ottawa would be much more difficult.
“Scott Brison has been my MP since as long as I’ve been aware of federal politics. … You can’t go anywhere in this riding without running into people who know him. He has so much brand recognition,” said Mr. Blois after an all-candidates debate at a local fire hall.
In rural Nova Scotia, loyalty to individual politicians runs deep. That’s true from Kings-Hants to Central Nova, where former Tory cabinet minister Peter MacKay has been helping Conservative candidate George Canyon win over voters surprised at the country star’s appointment by the party.
In this election, old-guard politicians across the province, from Bill Casey to Rodger Cuzner to Mark Eyking, are stepping aside to make way for new contenders.
They’re quietly guiding the next generation of candidates, passing on decades of experience while helping them prepare for local debates or introducing them to influential supporters in their ridings.
But they’re also wary of inserting themselves too much in local campaigns.
New candidates need to learn things on their own and step out from the shadow of the MP they want to replace, Mr. Cuzner said. In his riding of Cape Breton-Canso, he’s helped where he can, but newcomer Mike Kelloway has also tried to do things his own way, bringing in a younger crop of volunteers to run his campaign.
“We’ve been around such a long time that a lot of the older volunteers have also said it’s time to step back and let some younger people get involved and carry the torch,” Mr. Cuzner said. “I’ll do what I can to help Mike be successful. But he knows he’s got to go out and make his own mark. He has to find his own way."
Mr. MacKay has introduced Mr. Canyon to the local Conservatives base, offered tips on how to talk policy and has been a behind-the-scenes coach in a riding he served for almost two decades, guiding the rookie through a tight race with Liberal MP Sean Fraser. The riding has traditionally been Mr. MacKay’s family fiefdom, with 40 years of representation between himself and his father, Elmer, a Mulroney-era cabinet minister.
Mr. MacKay – whose supporters are reportedly laying the groundwork for a possible Conservative leadership bid – lives in Toronto now but said he was asked to run for the Tories again in Central Nova. With three kids under six, though, he said the timing wasn’t right. Instead, he encouraged Mr. Canyon to run after the local nominee stepped down and the party went looking for a star candidate to drop in.
Not everyone here likes how that happened.
“People think it’s a joke. He came second in a singing contest, moved to Nashville or wherever, changed his name and now he’s back as a hero,” said Candace MacDonald, the owner of a smoking supply store in New Glasgow. “New Glasgow is a town where you have to stick it out. You can’t just parachute in here and expect to win.”
But those who dismiss Mr. Canyon as just a country singer who left for Alberta are underestimating his political abilities, Mr. MacKay argues.
“I think he’s got a compelling story. He’s got a lot more to offer beyond stage presence and a cowboy hat,” he said. “I think he’s going to surprise people.”
The former cabinet minister has leaned on his network of conservatives inside and outside the riding to boost Mr. Canyon’s chances. At the opening of the Brian Mulroney Institute of Government last month at St. Francis Xavier University, Mr. MacKay spent the morning introducing the candidate to the crowd of invited guests, which included former Conservative staffers and politicians.
Jim Bickerton, a professor of political science at the university, said Mr. Brison’s and Mr. MacKay’s strong personal followings are unusual in politics. While that influence can fade the longer someone is out of office, people in rural ridings tend to have long memories and remember how a former cabinet minister helped them or their community.
“I think George Canyon will benefit from all those years of building up loyal, Conservative voters,” Prof. Bickerton said. “Peter has such a strong reputation here, he’s very highly regarded … so if he’s involved, that could rally people."
But not everyone is convinced the support of prominent Tories can help Mr. Canyon turn the riding blue again.
“In 2015, the Conservative establishment was also trying to help the local candidate and it didn’t make a lick of difference,” said Mr. Fraser, the Liberal MP who is seeking re-election.
“People can see through the commentary that this has always been a Conservative riding. I think people here are more open-minded than they’re given credit for.”
In Kings-Hants, Mr. Brison also lent his young protégé his former campaign manager, Dale Palmeter, the architect of Mr. Brison’s seven electoral victories in the riding since 1997. Together, they won election after election, despite Mr. Brison switching parties and coming out as gay in a traditionally conservative riding.
“Scott treated every election he ran in as if it was his first,” Mr. Palmeter said. “In rural communities, people know you or they know your cousin or they know people who know you. They want to see you engage with them.”
But Mr. Blois’s rivals, including Conservative candidate Martha MacQuarrie and the NDP’s Stephen Schneider, see an opportunity with Mr. Brison finally out of the way. Ms. MacQuarrie says voters are angry at what she calls “failing Liberal branding,” while Mr. Schneider argues the electorate isn’t thrilled about any of the party leaders. With Mr. Brison gone, each believes their party has its best chance in years to win here.
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