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Why a by-election in this riding is making Stephen Harper nervous

Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks at Fort Garry Fire Trucks Winnipeg on Nov. 22, 2013. The Conservative Party is facing a difficult by-election in the riding of Brandon-Souris, which has normally been a Tory stronghold.

TREVOR HAGAN/REUTERS

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Today, Stephen Harper will be fretting over a by-election where his Conservatives have wrestled with the demons of the Senate scandal and the ghosts of Reform.

In southwest Manitoba's Brandon-Souris riding, a predictably Conservative constituency has turned unpredictable. It's not a bellwether, and one seat won't change Parliament. But for Conservatives, the missteps of Brandon will raise uneasy questions – especially if they lose.

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Of four by-elections today, this is the hot one. The Prime Minister signed a letter attacking Justin Trudeau that arrived last week in the mailboxes of targeted Tory supporters. The Liberals responded by buying the front page of The Brandon Sun for a picture of Mr. Trudeau and candidate Rolf Dinsdale under a "Change is Coming" headline, with Mr. Trudeau's rebuttal letter on Page 2.

The other three won't have the same impact on the PM. In Toronto Centre and Montreal's Bourassa, there are Liberal-NDP fights, and both are the Liberals' to lose. In Provencher, Man., where former minister Vic Toews won 71 per cent of the vote in 2011, a Conservative loss remains nearly unthinkable.

But Brandon-Souris is a traditionally solid Tory riding, and it's close. In 60 years of federal elections, it chose a Conservative every time but once, in 1993. That date alone should haunt a few Tories: That was when disgust over years of the Brian Mulroney – and, briefly, Kim Campbell – government brought the Reform Party spirit to life in the West, and Brandon-Souris elected a Liberal.

Mr. Harper leads the heirs of the Reform Party now, and the right isn't split. But some in Brandon-Souris recall Reform's spirit of grassroots democracy and transparency, not to mention Senate reform, and some are annoyed.

A big part is the feeling that party HQ in Ottawa rigged the Tory nomination. When MP Merv Tweed resigned in August, his young, well-known aide, Chris Kennedy, decided to run. But when the time came, the party announced that Mr. Kennedy and another candidate, Len Isleifson, were disqualified for incomplete paperwork. Provincial MLA Larry Maguire was acclaimed.

Mr. Kennedy and Mr. Isleifson insisted they'd met the requirements, but then went mostly quiet. There were, said Kelly Saunders, a Brandon University political science professor, allegations that party operatives were trying to silence local Tories. But some of Mr. Kennedy's supporters piped up. Rick Pauls, mayor of Killarney-Turtle Mountain, ripped up his Conservative membership card and ran (unsuccessfully) for the Liberal nomination. Rick Borotsik, a former Brandon mayor, Tory MP and MLA, posed smiling for a picture with Mr. Trudeau in The Brandon Sun.

Mr. Pauls said the Conservatives always won the riding, so the nomination race usually amounts to the election. People felt cheated out of an election.

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Nomination battles often leave bitterness. But this one has played into a sense that a controlling Ottawa has gone off track, worrying about themselves. The Senate scandal – protecting a senator over expenses, an unwillingness to answer questions – clashes with the Reform spirit of democracy and accountability, Ms. Saunders said: "Conservatives come up to me and say, 'what the heck is going on up there in Ottawa?'"

For the Liberals, it's been a perfect storm. They came fourth in 2011, behind the Green Party. But Mr. Trudeau has attracted plenty of attention on three visits, Ms. Saunders said. Mr. Dinsdale, the Liberal candidate, lived outside the riding most of his adult life – but his father was the riding's Tory MP for 30 years. And the Liberals are probably attracting disaffected New Democrats over the provincial NDP government's unpopular sales-tax hike.

Mr. Maguire, usually visible, backed out of debates and dodged media. Ms. Saunders said people ask, "What have they done to Larry?" Incidentally, Mr. Maguire happens to be the Tory who lost that sole federal race back in 1993.

Can the Conservatives really lose now? Their roots mean they have a much stronger ground machine to get out their vote, and that makes a big difference in by-elections. The Liberals will try to muster party workers and volunteers from across Manitoba and beyond. Even if it's close, the Conservatives will be embarrassed. If they lose, it will raise questions about the kind of missteps and disaffection that could dog them beyond Brandon-Souris.

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

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