The Conservative government faces its first real test of the fallout from the Senate spending scandal as four federal by-elections enter the final week of campaigning.
There is much at stake for Stephen Harper – and the Liberal and NDP leaders vying to be his main rival – as voters in Toronto Centre, the Montreal riding of Bourassa and two ridings in Manitoba prepare to go to the polls on Nov. 25.
The Conservatives, perhaps concerned about losing Brandon-Souris, a Manitoba riding that is a traditional Tory stronghold, have sent one of their top strategists out to help. Deputy chief of staff Jenni Byrne, who ran their most-recent federal campaign – the first majority win for the Tories under Harper – has been out to the riding, according to a senior Conservative source.
A recent poll shows the Liberal candidate leading the Tories in Brandon-Souris – candidates have said they are hearing about the Senate scandal at doors. (Mr. Harper does not usually campaign in by-elections as they are often a chance for voters to slap down the governing party without dire consequences.)
"The results of by-elections and their importance often get overblown," said Conservative commentator Tim Powers, vice-chairman of Summa Strategies. "Polls at the moment show the Liberals ahead in Brandon, but we are still a week away and many factors could influence the outcome. Of course, the Conservatives won't be happy if they lose Brandon and the Liberals will likely overplay its significance if they win."
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau campaigned there for two days last week, an indication of how seriously the Liberals view their chances. (There is a second by-election in Manitoba – in the riding of Provencher, which was held by former Harper cabinet minister Vic Toews. It is expected to remain in Tory hands.)
But much of the Liberal focus is on Toronto Centre, traditionally a Grit riding, where they are now in a fight with the NDP.
This is an important one for Mr. Trudeau. He is personally invested there, as his candidate, Chrystia Freeland, an author and journalist, was handpicked. Her most serious contenders for the nomination stepped aside for her after she moved from New York, where she had lived for the past decade, to make the bid.
He has visited the riding five times since she won the nomination in September. He is expected again this week.
But Toronto Centre is also a key riding for the NDP, which has its own star candidate, author and journalist Linda McQuaig. On Sunday, NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair made a surprise visit to her headquarters, where about 200 volunteers were gathered for a rally with former Ontario NDP leader Stephen Lewis.
Mr. Mulcair was in the riding about 10 days ago – and will return again this week before the vote.
Ms. McQuaig, who, like Ms. Freeland, writes about economic issues, has not been shy about taking pot shots at her competitor.
"We finally got to the stage where we are having debates but even in the debates she says almost nothing," said Ms. McQuaig, telling The Globe she is running an issues-oriented campaign. "I point out she's been out of the country so maybe she isn't so up-to-date … hasn't been following the issues closely."
For her part, Ms. Freeland says she is comfortable with the Liberal Leader's positive tone. "We are all about taking the high road, about being positive," she says, declining to comment on Ms. McQuaig's characterization.
She notes that three more debates are scheduled before next Monday's vote.
The Tories are not competitive in Toronto Centre – and nor are they in Bourassa where the Liberals and NDP are battling. Bourassa was previously held by Liberal MP and former cabinet minister Denis Coderre, who resigned and made a successful run for Montreal mayor.
The NDP are holding a rally there Monday and Mr. Mulcair is expected to attend. For the NDP, winning the riding would be affirmation that their spectacular win in the 2011 federal campaign – 58 of 75 seats – was not a fluke.
Political observers, meanwhile, will be focused on the results on November 25 to see how the vote for the Conservatives compares to the past federal election when they won their first majority government.
"I would be quite surprised to see a significant improvement in Conservative fortunes," predicts national pollster Nik Nanos, of Nanos Research Group. "In this environment it has to be very tough for the Conservatives to raise money and motivate volunteers."