Justin Trudeau is invoking the ghost of Jack Layton as he celebrates the Liberal Party's strong showing in a series of by-elections, inflaming tensions with the NDP and foreshadowing more negative politics between now and the 2015 general election.
None of the four seats up for grabs on Monday changed hands, but the by-election results pointed to Liberal strengths, Conservative weaknesses and NDP challenges. In addition, the Liberal Leader's decision to echo Mr. Layton in his victory speech – in order to criticize NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair – fuelled the residual anger from the bitter and often negative races in the urban ridings of Toronto Centre and Bourassa, each held by the Liberals.
"This is no longer the hopeful, optimistic party of Jack Layton. It is the negative, divisive party of Tom Mulcair," Mr. Trudeau said in Montreal, after the Bourassa win. "Because it's the Liberal party, tonight, that proved that hope is stronger than fear."
The comments, taken from a letter that was released after the death of Mr. Layton in 2011, earned a sharp rebuke from Mr. Mulcair.
"That Justin Trudeau would use Jack Layton's dying words as a political tool says everything that needs to be said about Justin Trudeau's judgment and character," Mr. Mulcair told reporters on Tuesday after pausing to contain himself.
As the NDP and Liberals sparred, the Conservatives retained their two rural seats in Manitoba, Provencher and Brandon-Souris, though each by a thinner margin than in the past.
In Brandon-Souris, Conservative Larry Maguire beat his Liberal challenger by just 391 votes, with the Conservative vote total plummeting 45 per cent. A drop in NDP support and the Senate scandal each contributed to the close race, Mr. Maguire said in an interview Tuesday.
"Of course, the Senate issue was on some people's minds, many people's minds, throughout the campaign," he said Tuesday, adding his view on the Senate is to "either fix it or scrap it."
He planned to focus on winning infrastructure projects for his riding and emphasized his government's European trade deal and its plan to balance the budget. He rejected questions about what power a backbencher has. "I think you have an opportunity to represent your people," he said.
Independent MP Brent Rathgeber, who quit the Conservative caucus earlier this year, said Conservatives in the Prairies "have a lot to be concerned about" after Monday's results, but still won two seats and can still take "some satisfaction, or some reassurance, in knowing that their ground machine is still superior" in getting supporters to the polls.
That's partly because of Jenni Byrne, who ran the Conservatives' 2011 campaign and now works in the Prime Minister's Office. Ms. Byrne spent slightly more than a week in Brandon-Souris, a Conservative source said. "She was a huge factor in our win and is the single best political organizer in the country," the source said.
Overall, Liberal support grew in the four ridings, compared with 2011 results, while the Conservatives dropped in all four. NDP support grew in Toronto Centre, held in Bourassa and fell in the two Manitoba ridings, where Mr. Mulcair said the NDP have "a lot of work to do, clearly."
Mr. Mulcair, who became NDP Leader last year, made frequent campaign stops during the by-elections, and his party raised the stakes with a series of attacks on Liberal candidates.
The fight was particularly bitter in Bourassa. At one point, the NDP posted signs attacking the "Club Privilège Libéral," accusing Liberal Emmanuel Dubourg of abusing the public purse by taking a $100,000 allowance to quit his provincial seat to run federally. In Toronto Centre, the NDP went directly after Liberal Chrystia Freeland, who spent much of her career with media giants in the United States and Europe.
However, both Mr. Dubourg and Ms. Freeland easily held their seats. Ms. Freeland's win was particularly sweet for the Liberals. Attracting her candidacy was a relative coup, but ensuring her victory has the added benefit of comforting other potential star candidates that running for the Liberals is less of a professional risk than it was in recent years.