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B.C. by-elections could prove crucial to Liberals

Liberal candidate Dennis Marsden for Port Moody-Coquitlam, Premier Christy Clark and Liberal candidate Laurie Throness for Chilliwack-Hope join hands during a joint press conference in Port Moody.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail/John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

As a rookie B.C. Liberal premier, Christy Clark beat the by-election odds last year by narrowly winning Vancouver-Point Grey, formerly Gordon Campbell's riding.

As she kicked off two new by-elections last week, Ms. Clark noted she was one of two government by-election winners in B.C. in about a quarter century.

Ms. Clark was at the campaign office of the Liberal candidate in Port Moody-Coquitlam, appearing with him and the candidate from Chilliwack-Hope. Liberal MLAs departed both ridings last year for the private sector.

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Ms. Clark noted that party members in the audience helped her pull off her win. "The people who are clapping are all people who came out to Vancouver-Point Grey to help me win that by-election," she said. "Now they're here and they're here and in Chilliwack to help these two men win their by-elections."

It was as if they were a lucky charm. But luck appears in short supply for the Liberals this time around, and the outcome on April 19 stands to be catastrophic for the Liberals, who have governed B.C. since 2001 but are now running behind the NDP in most polls. One Angus Reid survey last month had the NDP at 42 per cent compared to 28 per cent for the Liberals.

By-elections – so the conventional wisdom goes – don't matter. Not so this time, because they come about a year before the May, 2013 provincial election, and threaten to establish dynamics that could threaten the Liberals.

"If the Liberals lose both of these, it could well be pivotal," says political scientist Hamish Telford, a professor at University of the Fraser Valley.

Port Moody is Ms. Clark's hometown. She was MLA for the community before she left politics years ago to spend more time with her family. But observers suggest the Liberals face long odds holding the seat because the NDP have wooed Joe Trasolini, the former long-time mayor, as their candidate.

Many say Chilliwack is more notable. Liberals have held the riding since the 1990s.

An NDP upset is possible, bolstered by an energized B.C. Conservative Party splitting the centre-right vote. When that vote is split in B.C., the NDP wins and the "free-enterprise" party of the day, whether Social Credit or Liberal, loses.

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Although the Conservatives have no legislature seats, their new leader – former Tory MP John Cummins – has generated a lot of attention.

A Conservative win by candidate John Martin in Chilliwack would be catastrophic for the Liberals because it would give the party a foothold in the legislature and a voice beyond Mr. Cummins, says Mr. Telford.

Worse, for Ms. Clark's party, it could convince some Liberals to join the provincial Conservatives, he said. The provincial Conservatives have no ties to their federal namesakes.

"That might really mark the beginning of the end for the Liberals," he said. "Things would unravel from there. This really is pretty important for the Liberal party."

Ironically enough, he said an NDP win could be good for the Liberals because it would validate Ms. Clark's warnings about vote-splitting.

"It would put a lot of pressure on the Conservative party to justify itself," said Mr. Telford. "It might help re-coalesce the Liberal coalition, and bring that coalition back together."

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Despite it all, Ms. Clark is stubbornly optimistic and talks of another Vancouver-Point Grey outcome. "I hope we will win both. We're going to work really hard to win both," she said.

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