WINNIPEG — Byelections are often referendums on the government’s popularity or a test of the opposition’s ground-game.
Thanks to the overwhelming clout of the Conservative party in rural Manitoba, two upcoming byelections are neither, making them pretty low-key affairs.
Voters in Morris and Arthur-Virden go to the polls a week today in two of the safest Tory seats in the province. With the NDP polling at just 21 per cent among rural voters and the Liberals still rebuilding, both ridings have not fired up Manitoba’s brutally cold January.
"The two topics that come up most at the door are the weather and the PST," said Shannon Martin, Conservative candidate in Morris. "I’m going with my original strategy, but instead of wearing sandals and a ball cap, I’m wearing Sorels and tuque."
Morris gave the Conservatives their third biggest victory in 2011, and it’s safer than nearly any other seat in the province. No poll in the Morris riding voted NDP in 2011, so it’s hard to see the race as a mid-term test of the NDP’s popularity, minute in Morris to begin with.
But, said NDP candidate Dean Harder, the party isn’t as unpopular there as some might expect.
"Everyone here does not hate the NDP," said Harder, son of well-known farm advocate Butch Harder. "That would be a terrible misconception"
Harder, who was canvassing in Lasalle Monday, said the key issues he’s encountering at the door are growth, especially in the bedroom communities, and flood protection. He said the NDP has a clear plan to tackle both those problems.
The NDP is not exactly throwing resources at the Morris riding, but nor is the party ignoring it. Harder has an experienced campaign manager and Premier Greg Selinger stumped in Morris during the second week of the race. A couple of other cabinet ministers have also paid a visit.
Meanwhile, Martin has been working to raise his profile in the riding since May and is campaigning full-time. A former Tory staffer, Martin would likely earn a cabinet seat if the Conservatives form government following the next general election in two years.
Typically, the two byelections would be a chance for Liberals to demonstrate their newfound momentum and any progress they’ve made improving their ground game. The party has a new leader in Rana Bokhari and the federal Liberals fared surprisingly well in last fall’s byelection in Brandon-Souris. A recent Probe poll shows the Liberals have quadrupled their support in rural Manitoba and a weak NDP vote often translates into more support for the Liberals.
But Tory strength may trump any Liberal gains, and progress rebuilding the Liberals has been slow. Opposition Leader Brian Pallister spent Monday in Arthur-Virden, campaigning with Tory candidate Doyle Piwniuk who said poor local infrastructure and the forced amalgamation of rural municipalities are the top issues in the southwestern Manitoba riding.
Selinger called the byelections in the middle of the Christmas holidays amid an uncommonly bad stretch of winter weather. Travelling the large rural ridings has been tricky, most candidates said. In Arthur-Virden, the best chance to meet voters was at the provincial curling championship earlier this month in Virden, and many people are away on beach holidays.
Advanced voting locations, which began popping up Saturday, have seen moderate traffic, according to Elections Manitoba. Over the weekend, 126 people cast a ballot in Arthur-Virden, up a little from the same advance voting period during the 2011 general election. Voting in Morris was much lighter, with just 20 people heading to the advance polls.
» Winnipeg Free Press
• Located in Manitoba’s southwestern corner, it includes much of the booming oilpatch, several First Nations and towns such as Deloraine, Boissevain and Hamiota.
• Liberal: Floyd Buhler, CAO of the Rural Municipality of Wallace.
• Progressive Conservative: Doyle Piwniuk, a Virden insurance broker and financial planner.
• NDP: Bob Senff, a retired teacher from Virden.
• Green: Kate Storey, an organic cattle farmer from Grandview.
Who won last time
Progressive Conservative Larry Maguire, who resigned his provincial seat last year to run federally. The Tories won the riding with 66 per cent of the vote and the area has voted Conservative for generations.
Only three polls — Crandall, Lenore and Kenton — voted NDP in the last general election, but that was because candidate Garry Draper lived in the area and was well-liked.
• It’s big, covering several growing Winnipeg bedroom communities as well as large swaths of Manitoba farmland and flood-land. It includes Headingley, Niverville, Oak Bluff, Morris and Ste. Agathe.
• Liberal: Jeremy Barber, an economics student at the University of Manitoba who grew up in Sanford.
• NDP: Dean Harder, a farmer and actor from Lowe Farm.
• Green: Alain Landry, a high school teacher and interim leader of the provincial Greens.
• Progressive Conservative: Shannon Martin, former provincial director of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business.
• Independent: Ray Shaw, a Morris account, real estate agent and gadfly.
Who won last time
• The Conservatives, with nearly 4,200 votes more than the NDP. Tory Mavis Taillieu, now retired, won with the third-largest percentage of the vote in the whole province.
• Morris has voted Tory for 60 years, but it had an independent streak during and after the Second World War when the riding voted for an independent candidate three times.
» Winnipeg Free Press