By Chad Bowie
It will be a surprise if the Nova Scotia Progressive Conservative Party fails to pull off a hat trick in provincial byelections next week. Voters in Argyle-Barrington, Northside-Westmount, and Sydney River-Mira-Louisbourg will head to the polls on Tuesday to replace a trio of Tory MLAs who are now seeking election to the House of Commons.
In Argyle-Barrington, the Tories have nominated Colton LeBlanc, a paramedic and friend of outgoing MLA Chris d’Entremont. LeBlanc has relied on his front line professional experience to put health care issues front and centre during the campaign. His main opponent is Charlene LeBlanc (no relation), a development officer for the Municipality of the District of Argyle.
It’s been well documented that Charlene LeBlanc flirted with the Tories before deciding to offer as the Liberal candidate in the byelection. She says Tory leader Tim Houston’s position on the Yarmouth ferry service was key to her making the swap. She may come to regret that decision after the ballots are counted Tuesday night.
Undoubtedly, the Liberals pinned their hopes on making the byelection a local referendum on the ferry service, which the McNeil government has enthusiastically supported, sometimes with reckless abandon. Under different circumstances, it may have been a winning strategy.
Plagued by delays, the ferry has yet to sail this season — an embarrassing failure for the McNeil government and one with electoral consequences.
With their biggest threat neutralized, the Tories should cruise to victory in Argyle-Barrington.
In Sydney River-Mira-Louisbourg, Liberal candidate Marc Botte has the great misfortune of serving as the government’s defender-in-chief in a region that many consider Ground Zero for Nova Scotia’s health care crisis.
For their part, the Tories have nominated another health care professional — Brian Comer, a nurse who has worked in mental health and addictions for the past half decade.
The Progressive Conservative Party has invested a great deal of time in addressing Cape Breton’s health care challenges in recent years. That work, coupled with a strong political foundation laid by outgoing MLA Alfie MacLeod, should pay off in Sydney River-Mira-Louisbourg this week with the election of Comer.
If there’s a race to watch, it’s in Northside-Westmount, where seven candidates are vying to replace former MLA Eddie Orrell. Four of those candidates have roots in the Progressive Conservative Party:
- First, Atlantica Party leader Thomas Bethel, who previously ran for the Progressive Conservatives in nearby Glace Bay, has put his name forward to represent the people of Northside-Westmount. Although the Atlantica Party has interesting policy ideas that merit discussion, the party has been around for some time and has failed to gain traction with voters. There’s no reason to expect that to change Tuesday.
- Andrew Doyle, a popular local musician with Tory ties, has registered to run as an independent. He’s built his campaign around health care and education – two hot button topics – but as an independent, he’s unlikely to have a major impact on the results.
- Danny Laffin was the Progressive Conservative candidate until he was turfed by leader Tim Houston for failing to disclose unknown details during the party’s rigorous vetting process. It’s never easy to remove a candidate from your party’s ticket, especially in a competitive race (trust me; I’ve done it). While the details surrounding Laffin’s dismal remain unknown to the general public, it’s clear Houston was seriously concerned about what was uncovered given his decision to use the eleventh-hour nuclear option.
- Complicating matters for Houston, however, is the fact that Danny Laffin has decided to remain on the ballot as an independent candidate – a decision supported by some rank-and-file Tory members in the constituency. Laffin is expected to perform a bit better than the typical independent candidate, but without a party operation supporting his voter-identification and get-out-the-vote efforts, he’s unlikely to finish above third place.
- Finally, the official Progressive Conservative candidate is Murray Ryan, a chartered accountant. Despite being appointed at the last minute, Ryan is said to have been a constant fixture on the doorsteps in the constituency, often with Houston by his side.
The NDP also tried to make a splash in the constituency when leader Gary Burrill committed to ensuring local hospitals in North Sydney and New Waterford will remain open if he forms a government.
Burrill’s problem is that no one credibly believes he has a chance at forming a government and that’s unlikely to change between now and Tuesday.
The Liberals have nominated police officer Paul Ratchford. Although Ratchford is said to be a popular local volunteer, the Liberals have failed to equip their candidates with an effective counter to voter concerns over the state of the health care system.
That means Northside-Westmount is likely to stay in Tory hands.
Collectively, the three byelections are being rightly positioned as Houston’s first major test as Progressive Conservative leader. Given each of the constituencies’ strong Tory histories and the ongoing challenges in health care, Houston should meet – or even exceed – expectations.
If the Tories are to stumble anywhere, it will be in Northside-Westmount. Fortunately for Houston, he already has a byelection victory under his belt in 2019 and he’ll be able to point to the unexpected last-minute candidate change to explain coming up short. Given the circumstances, Tories would likely give him a pass.
Regardless of the outcome Tuesday, there will be no rest for Nova Scotia’s major political parties.
The coming weeks will bring a return to the House of Assembly, as well as a byelection in Truro-Bible Hill-Millbrook-Salmon River — where former NDP MLA Lenore Zann will be resigning to run federally as a Trudeau Liberal — not to mention the small matter of the issuance of the writ for the federal election
One thing is for sure: Nova Scotia politicos won’t be alone in watching Tuesday’s byelection results. Ottawa will be keeping a close eye – and for good reason. Byelections are rarely a reliable indicator of general election voting intentions. However, with mere weeks separating Tuesday’s provincial byelections and federal voting day, Nova Scotians may well be in for a preview of what’s to come.
Chad Bowie is a long-time conservative political strategist. He is also a direct marketing and political consultant. He owns Chad Bowie Consulting. He can be reached at email@example.com