The outcome of the Rothesay byelection will not change the government but the winner could alter the province’s political landscape in the two years leading up to the 2014 general election.
Premier David Alward forced the byelection when he appointed former energy minister Margaret-Ann Blaney to the position of president of the Crown-owned Efficiency New Brunswick.
Mid-mandate byelections can often be sleepy affairs. The Rothesay vote escaped that fate when New Democratic Party Leader Dominic Cardy announced he would attempt to win his party’s first seat in the legislature since 2005 and Progressive Conservative candidate Hugh John (Ted) Flemming III started distancing himself from the Blaney appointment.
Liberal John Wilcox, Green Party candidate Sharon Murphy and independent candidate Marjorie MacMurray have all struggled to gain the same profile as Flemming and Cardy.
The roughly 9,300 voters in Rothesay will vote between 10 a.m. and 8 p.m. on Monday. There are five storylines to watch for while the votes come in.
1. Voter turnout
Byelections tend to have lower voter turnout rates compared to general elections. The timing of Monday’s byelection comes on the first day of summer vacation for many students, which could mean some voters could be out of the southern New Brunswick town.
Elections New Brunswick reported 846 voters turned out for the two days of advance voting earlier in June.
Governing parties tend to perform well in New Brunswick byelections, particularly in the first half of a mandate.
Rothesay has been a Progressive Conservative seat since 1999 and the byelection race lacked a galvanizing issue.
Flemming’s team tried to diffuse the patronage issue as much as possible by criticizing patronage and by campaigning with Finance Minister Blaine Higgs, who also refused to endorse the Blaney appointment.
If there is indeed a low voter turnout, the party that can engineer the most efficient get-out-the-vote operation may have the overall edge.
The Progressive Conservatives should be in the best position to mobilize their ground forces considering they should be able to rely on Blaney’s electoral machinery.
The Liberals will need to find a way to resurrect their old base that voted for the party before 1999 and that allowed the party to come within 100 votes of knocking off Blaney in the 2006 election.
The NDP, meanwhile, will need to trot out a different strategy.
The party has largely been an also-ran in recent elections in Rothesay so there isn’t the same organizational depth in the party as compared to the Tories or even the Liberals.
Instead, Cardy will be relying on organizers from around the province and perhaps New Democrats from other provinces to get out the vote. Cardy has relied on the help of federal NDP stalwarts such as leader Tom Mulcair and Toronto MP Olivia Chow to gin up the troops.
The NDP leader will need to identify every willing supporter and deliver them to the polls on Monday if he wants to win a seat in the legislature.
2. Progressive Conservative win
A Flemming win, at the very least, will preserve the status quo. Alward’s Tories will keep their grip on 42 of 55 seats in the legislative assembly.
From a strategic perspective, this also gives Alward some additional options when it comes to shuffling, or at least rearranging, his cabinet this summer.
When Blaney left the legislature in May, Government Services Minister Craig Leonard was given the title of acting energy minister. It is expected the portfolio will soon get a full-time minister.
The loss of Blaney means not only is there a need for a minister, but Alward may feel pressure to promote a MLA from southern New Brunswick, where the premier has no shortage of potential recruits.
Flemming would be only the second lawyer in the Tory caucaus. If Alward wanted to promote Justice Minister Marie-Claude Blais, he could hand Flemming the justice and attorney general portfolio.
But for those thinking Flemming will have a free pass into cabinet, recent history teaches a different lesson.
Former premier Bernard Lord's government won three byelections in 2001 and none of those MLAs were appointed to cabinet. In fact, two of those MLAs lost their seats in 2003 and it took Transportation Minister Claude Williams until 2006 to find a seat around the cabinet table.
A win in Rothesay would help the Tories move away from the Blaney controversy.
Despite losing the byelection, the Liberals and NDP would likely attempt to use Flemming as a symbol of internal PC discontent. Flemming did his best to be seen in the riding with the popular finance minister and used Higgs in his campaign advertising. Both Flemming and Higgs refused to endorse the Blaney appointment.
The longer-term question for the Progressive Conservatives, if Flemming wins: is Higgs a greater asset for candidates than Alward?
3. NDP win
A Cardy win would give the NDP leader an instant jolt of credibility and it would secure his leadership.
The NDP would have a seat in the legislature for the first time since 2005 and along with that, Cardy would have a small research staff and the ability to rise regularly in Question Period and appear in legislative committees.
This would give the NDP leader, and his party, a tremendous amount of visibility in the two years before the 2014 election.
It would also give the party another advantage. It would mean the Liberals would be the only party — of the three traditional parties — without a leader inside the legislature.
Another electoral consideration, a NDP win would solidify the party’s claim that it is capitalizing on the inroads made by the federal party in 2011. Rothesay is not a riding that has deep NDP roots. A win would allow the party to claim the Liberals are losing ground in the province.
A Cardy victory would also rekindle the Blaney controversy. The NDP leader would introduce his so-called Rothesay Charter, which calls for an end to patronage appointments.
Cardy’s political opponents could find themselves in a box on whether to endorse the NDP leader’s gambit.
4. NDP second
Cardy may also claim a partial victory if he finishes second to the Progressive Conservatives. It would show the NDP leader and his party can run a solid campaign and Cardy’s team does have some political traction, particularly in southern New Brunswick.
It also offers some foreshadowing to 2014 by showing the NDP may be a relevant force in non-traditional ridings.
The Liberals would face more questions about their party’s future. A third-place finish would suggest the wounds from 2010 are still fresh in the voters’ minds.
A group of glass-is-half-full Liberals may suggest this byelection defeat would be rock bottom for the party and that it would allow the incoming Liberal leader the ability to completely disavow themselves from the former Liberal government.
5. Liberal win
The least-talked about scenario in the Rothesay byelection is a Liberal win. The Liberals would need to hold onto their base vote in the riding and hope enough Tories peel off to their party, and not the NDP, to push them over the top.
The other route for a Liberal win would see the Liberals hold onto their base and enough Tory votes simply stay at home.
A Wilcox win would show the Progressive Conservatives may be vulnerable in 2014. It would also give a jolt of momentum for the party, which is heading into a leadership convention in the fall.
It would also allow the Liberals to continue raising the Blaney issue, if they felt it was still politically useful.
While few people have given Wilcox a chance of winning, there is more talk of the Liberals holding onto their second-place status.
Aside from actually winning, the Liberals may walk away from Rothesay happy with a second-place result. It would show the party can withstand a challenge from the left, which they will need to contend with in 2014.
For Cardy, if he finished third in the byelection, he would need to significantly add to the nine per cent the NDP received in the 2010 election to avoid serious questions about his future.
Cardy could be safe if he can crack the 15 per cent threshold in the riding.