While enduring a Senate scandal that has shaken the Prime Minister's office, Stephen Harper's Conservatives fended off a Liberal surge to avoid losing a seat in by-election voting.
The Conservatives easily held Provencher and won narrowly in Brandon-Souris - two of Monday's four by-elections, and each a Manitoba riding overwhelmingly won by the Conservatives in 2011. The two other ridings, one in Toronto and another in Montreal, remained in Liberal hands after Monday's votes.
Mr. Harper's party saw its share of the vote decline in all four by-election ridings. Meanwhile, the Liberal share surged in all four, with the party leap-frogging the NDP in each Manitoba riding and fending off an NDP challenge in Toronto.
Pre-election polls had shown the Conservatives actually trailing in Brandon-Souris, despite its former stronghold status, but their candidate pulled out a win. With all 210 polls reporting, Conservative Larry Maguire – formerly a provincial MLA - received 44.1 per cent of the vote, ahead of Liberal Rolf Dinsdale's 42.7 per cent. In the end, 391 votes separated the candidates in a riding the Conservatives won by 13,541 votes two years ago.
In the riding of Toronto Centre, Liberal Chrystia Freeland beat New Democrat Linda McQuaig, winning 49 per cent of the vote with 213 of 268 polls reporting. The Conservatives held Provencher, where candidate Ted Falk took 58.1 per cent of the vote. In the fourth by-election, Liberal candidate Emmanuel Dubourg held the Montreal riding of Bourassa, garnering 48 per cent of the vote with nearly all the polls reporting.
Monday was a strong showing for the Liberals, who held their two ridings while winning each with a larger share of the vote in each. The Liberal vote exploded in Brandon-Souris, though it wasn't enough to win. The party got 1,882 votes in the riding in 2011, and 11,814 votes on Monday. In Provencher, the Liberals also surged to draw 30 per cent of the vote, up from 7 per cent in 2011.
The by-elections were, in particular, a test of the popular support for the Conservative government, which has spent much of this year coping with the fallout of the Senate spending scandal. RCMP continue to investigate senators appointed by Mr. Harper, as well as his former chief of staff, Nigel Wright. Mr. Harper sought to distance himself from the Senate affair – saying, for instance, he knew nothing of plans to use either Conservative party funds, or eventually $90,000 of Mr. Wright's own money, to repay certain expenses of since-suspended Senator Mike Duffy.
In the end, the party saw its support drop but didn't lose a seat.
Each of the four seats was vacated by an MP who voluntarily left. The departure of Conservatives Vic Toews and Merv Tweed opened up the two seats in Manitoba, while Liberal Denis Coderre left his Bourassa seat to run for mayor of Montreal. Finally, former Liberal interim leader Bob Rae left for the private sector. The departures altogether triggered four-races at the halfway mark between federal elections. Another by-election is looming after the departure of Alberta MP Ted Menzies, but a voting date hasn't been set.
With two vacated seats each, the Conservatives and the Liberals had the most to lose – though, in all four ridings, an NDP candidate had been the runner-up during the 2011 federal election. The party was runner-up in two of four races Monday, finishing third in the other two.
The NDP focused by-election efforts largely in Mr. Rae's former riding of Toronto Centre, hoping to win the long-time Liberal stronghold in the largest batch of by-elections since Thomas Mulcair became leader. They came up short, with Ms. McQuaig well behind Ms. Freeland, who won with a bigger share of the vote than Mr. Rae had in 2011. In Montreal, Mr. Dubourg also won a larger share of the vote than his predecessor, Mr. Coderre.
In Toronto Centre, Ms. Freeland arrived to the sound of the crowd chanting her name, taking the stage with a triumphant "We did it!" She also said the narrow win proves that Mr. Trudeau will be Prime Minister Harper's principal adversary at the next general election. "My message for Stephen Harper is watch out," she said. "We're on the rise, our party is united and Canadians want an alternative to the Conservatives."
Ms. McQuaig arrived at her election night party to concede shortly after 11 p.m. local time. She put a brave face on the results, pointing out that her result was still the best NDP showing in the riding's history.
"The result wasn't quite what we hoped for, but I think we put forward an incredible fight. We always knew this was a Liberal stronghold and that it would be an uphill battle, and it was," she said, as supporters chanted her name. "But we fought on. And the real point is what happens in 2015. This was just a trial run."
Among the four by-elections, the race in Brandon-Souris had emerged as the most surprising. Heading into Monday's vote, it had been won by conservative parties all but once over the past 60 years. However, the Conservative nomination battle was fraught with complaints and polls showed some Conservatives didn't plan on voting. Meanwhile, the Liberal banner was carried by a familiar name, Mr. Dinsdale, the son of a long-time former MP; Forum Research polling showed him to be the front-runner. But his campaign fell short.
Recent by-elections have been difficult for Mr. Harper's Conservatives. Their support slid in each Manitoba riding. Earlier this year, they lost a seat in Labrador. Late last year, the party only narrowly won a presumed slam-dunk by-election in Calgary Centre, the heart of the Prime Minister's hometown.
None of the four ridings has been competitive in recent elections. Toronto Centre has been held by the Liberals since 1993, before which the Progressive Conservatives held it for 15 years. Mr. Rae won the riding with 41 per cent of the vote in 2011.
Bourassa had been held by Mr. Coderre since 1997, and was held by the Bloc Québécois and the Progressive Conservatives before that. In 2011, Mr. Coderre won 41 per cent.
Brandon-Souris has been won by the Conservatives, or Progressive Conservatives, all but once since 1953. Mr. Tweed won 64 per cent of the vote in 2011.
Provencher has been held by the Conservatives since 2000, but was Liberal for two terms before that. Mr. Toews won 70 per cent of the vote two years ago.
With a report from Adrian Morrow and Joe Friesen