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Tories looking weaker after by-election nail-biter

Conservative candidate Larry Maguire enters his victory party following a tight byelection in the Brandon-Souris area in Brandon, Man., Monday night, Nov. 25, 2013.

TREVOR HAGAN/THE CANADIAN PRESS

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Four by-elections took the pulse of federal politics, and found the Conservatives looking older and a little out of shape. There'll still be some heart-thumping today after a pretty nasty scare.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government narrowly escaped an embarrassing ballot-box rebuke, and saw signs of disaffection in their heartland. The Senate scandal affected the mood of Tory supporters, and their votes. And in one key riding, Brandon-Souris, there were other elements that rankled the grassroots that may leave other questions.

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Mr. Harper's Conservatives will breathe a sigh of relief that Monday night ended as it began, all square, with two Conservative seats and two Liberal ones. But they were given a scare as true-blue Brandon-Souris, solidly Conservative in every election but one over the last 60 years, remained a squeaker until Tory Larry Maguire was declared the winner when the last poll was counted.

For Justin Trudeau, it was the passing of a real election test to establish himself as a competitor who can attract voters who look to his party as the viable alternative. His Liberals won no new seats, but they placed first or second in every race, and shook the Conservatives in their own house. That provided a sense the party is rebounding. And it made it a night of small consolations for the NDP.

These four by-elections don't provide a full examination of the nation's politics, but there was plenty to learn from the races.

Mr. Harper's Conservatives were clearly hurt by the Senate Scandal, with the Tory vote down in all four ridings. In Brandon-Souris, bitterness over the Conservative party nomination – two candidates were disqualified, leaving provincial MLA, Mr. Maguire, acclaimed as the candidate – left some Tories feeling a top-down party was controlling the grassroots. It's the kind of disaffection that ageing governments tend to suffer. The Harper Conservatives, who like control and discipline, but are obsessive about their political base, have now been warned that a repeat elsewhere could be dangerous.

The cliffhanger results in the southwest Manitoba riding provided a glimpse of the potential danger: The Conservatives, who won 64 per cent of the vote in the 2011 election, garnered 44.1 per cent this time, according to unofficial results. The Liberals, who were fourth behind the Green Party in 2011, were this time only a shade from a win, with 42.7 per cent.

Even in Provencher, the Manitoba Tory stronghold vacated by cabinet minister Vic Toews that the Conservatives won handily with 58 per cent of the vote on Monday night, there's evidence that Mr. Harper's support has been dented: the Conservative vote went down by 12 percentage points from 2011, to the lowest percentage since the Canadian Alliance and Progressive Conservatives united.

For the moment, at least, Mr. Trudeau is the leader capturing the hope, and even without winning new seats, his Liberals will count the night as a win. Apparently still enjoying a honeymoon seven months into the job, Mr. Trudeau was a draw to voters, winning his party another look. In Manitoba, that brought the party back from single-digit percentages to the main opposition. In Brandon-Souris, it made Mr. Harper fear for his own turf.

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Mr. Trudeau can't crow too much about wins in two urban Liberal strongholds, in Toronto and Montreal. But his party still fought off full-bore challenges from the NDP, and widened their margins of victory while replacing two high-profile MPs – former Ontario Premier Bob Rae and new Montreal mayor Denis Coderre.

For the NDP, the moral victories mostly rang hollow. Winning Liberal seats in urban Toronto and Montreal was always a long-shot, but their high-profile candidates didn't close the gap.

The most important bright spot was a solid second in Bourassa that placed them far ahead of the Bloc Québécois. For the NDP, whose base is now in Quebec, it's crucial to keep the once-mighty Bloc to the margins – to be seen as the viable choice to defeat other parties in future elections.

But the Manitoba results will raise the NDP's worst fears. In the recent election, they had displaced the Liberals as second choice in both ridings. This time, they were reduced to also-rans, and the Liberals bounced back as the main competition to the Conservatives.

The brief exam of these by-elections doesn't make a prognosis for 2015, but it does give a new assessment. Mr. Harper looks weaker, Mr. Mulcair is under stress, and Mr. Trudeau has emerged looking a little stronger.

Campbell Clark is a columnist in The Globe's Ottawa bureau.

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