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Murray Rankin speaks with volunteers Robin Tosczak, left, and Joanna Groves at his campaign headquarters.CHAD HIPOLITO/The Globe and Mail

More than two hours after the polls closed, federal NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair quietly waited in a Victoria hotel room while a cliffhanger unfolded in Victoria. As New Democrats gathered under crystal chandeliers for a victory party, what was supposed to be a safe by-election seat looked, for much of the evening, like it might be stolen by the Green Party.

"It's been a long and winding road," a victorious and relieved Murray Rankin told cheering supporters after his short, surprise introduction from Mr. Mulcair, who only emerged once the NDP's lead widened to a comfortable margin.

"We never took this riding for granted," Mr. Mulcair said.

Mr. Rankin thanked his "good friend Donald Galloway" who tripled the Green's support since the 2011 general election.

"This has been a campaign about issues and ideas," Mr. Rankin told supporters. Despite the close call, he said the results gave a clear message to the Harper government that Victoria voters have rejected the Northern Gateway pipeline: "We will not let this country become the energy Wal-Mart of the world," he said.

Mr. Rankin only made an oblique reference to the controversial issue of sewage treatment. The NDP candidate was the only one on the ballot to support plans for a secondary treatment facility. Voters, he said, have said "yes to a clean environment including our ocean."

The Green Party worked hard to make a breakthrough in Victoria, parachuting in campaign workers in a bid to replicate its 2011 campaign success in neighbouring Saanich-Gulf Islands. "Call it the Green surge," suggested party Leader Elizabeth May, the first elected Green MP in Canada, earlier in the day. Ms. May and her Victoria candidate Mr.  Galloway were banking on the same kind of energy that helped carry her to victory last year.

In last year's general election, Victoria voters returned New Democrat Denise Savoie to a second term with better than 50 per cent of all ballots cast. By that account, plus the NDP's well-tested campaign machinery, any upset would be dramatic.

Ms. May met with reporters after spending Monday morning waving at drivers in a final push to get the vote out in Victoria. She had asked voters to give the Greens a chance – and give her a little help in Ottawa. "It's the struggle to always be there, to never miss a vote," she said. "Fingers and toes crossed, it would make a remarkable difference not only for the Green Party but for Parliament in general."

The appeal had resonance, with the Greens gaining substantially in a riding where, in 2011, they pulled less than 12 per cent of the vote.

But Ms. Savoie was a popular incumbent, lifted up by the orange crush of 2011. "You really never know," Mr. Rankin told reporters after casting his own ballot. This race would prove to be a test for the NDP without the popular Jack Layton at the head.

To hang on to the NDP seat, Mr. Rankin campaigned against the Harper government and against the Northern Gateway pipeline proposal, which has met deep opposition on the West Coast. In an environmentally conscious riding, he played up his activism in environmental law. He was, however, the only one of the four main contenders who supported a costly plan to build a secondary sewage treatment plant for the community.

That issue – sewage treatment – was the one that Liberal candidate Paul Summerville flogged relentlessly. He cast it as the "billion-dollar boondoggle." Would a local issue overshadow the federal issues so far from Ottawa?

The answer, as the poll returns trickled in, was no. Mr. Summerville ran well behind the two main contenders.

"It seems Victorians are engaged in this," Mr. Summerville told reporters hours before the polls closed. "When I win today, it will send a huge shock through the pro-sewage forces."