River Heights will be 'a tough battle on election night,' expert says

River Heights has been Manitoba Liberal Party turf since 1999, but this election, incumbent Jon Gerrard is facing an uphill battle according to one expert.

Political scientist Christopher Adams says constituency 'shouldn't be considered a safe seat'

Jon Gerrard could have his work cut out for him this provincial election in River Heights, political analyst Christopher Adams said.

River Heights has been Manitoba Liberal Party turf since 1999, but this election, incumbent Jon Gerrard is facing an uphill battle according to one expert.

Not only are the Progressive Conservatives way out in front — 50 per cent of voters polled recently said they support the PCs — but support for Gerrard's Manitoba Liberals continues to dwindle, with Leader Rana Bokhari at the helm of what political scientist Christopher Adams calls a "catastrophic campaign."

"There's a real possibility he might be unseated," said Adams. "I wouldn't put money on it but I do think that he's in for a tough battle."

The physician, former Manitoba Liberal leader and 16-year MLA has built a strong base of support over the years, but River Heights is shaping up to be a tight, two-way race.

Adams said Gerrard's great threat is in PC candidate Tracey Maconachie, the current president of the Life Sciences Association of Manitoba.

"She's a fairly charismatic candidate and I think at the door that she might win over some of those voters who might have gone for Gerrard before," he said, adding the Progressive Conservatives stand to gain any Liberal voters who are on the fence. 

"River Heights has never gone NDP, so if people do switch from the Liberals, they'll probably switch over to the Progressive Conservatives, so it's going to be a very interesting battle to watch," he said.

Pallister's backyard

Another factor potentially playing against Gerard is that PC leader Brian Pallister lives in the neighbourhood. But Gerrard is hardly phased by the competition or the Liberals' loss of six candidates.

"What I'm hearing at the door is that the situation is not exactly as depicted in the polls and that we're actually doing very well," said Gerrard. "There [are] some wonderful candidates. Rana is continuing to make good announcements. We've got an excellent platform and people are responding."

Gerrard said he suspects he's "reasonably ahead" in River Heights, adding he's not taking anything for granted.

Maconachie told CBC News she's feeling energized about her campaign and her strategy into the final leg is simple.

"Knock on doors, knock on doors and knock on more doors," she said. "Really, people are saying they're looking for change. They're looking for change in River Heights. They haven't had a strong voice," she said.

Also vying for the seat in River Heights is NDP candidate Shafagh Daneshfar, who immigrated to Canada from Iran with her family in 2005. She is currently a member with the University of Winnipeg Students' Association.

Michael Cardillo, a soil scientist, is running with the Manitoba Green Party. He said despite the two front-runners "duking it out" there are choices. 

"The neighbourhood is very split between blues and reds ... and I'm just here really pushing hard, distributing flyers, talking to anyone who wants to speak to me that there is another alternative in the neighbourhood."

'River Heights needs change'

A number of voters CBC News spoke with Friday said they were undecided, including Florence Kemkaran. 

"I like Pallister's platform. It's kind of good because of taxes ... but I kind of want to see the Liberals win, too," she said, adding ultimately provincially she wants to see change.

Change is also what voter Jerry Roitelmann is after.
The election results of each voting area during the last 2011 Manitoba provincial elections. River Heights is the island of red at the centre surrounded by orange (NDP) and blue (PCs). (CBC News)

"Enough is enough. River Heights needs a change, the province needs a change, the economy is down and we're due," he said, adding he plans to vote for the PCs. 

"There's been no activity from [Gerrard]. We haven't seen him, heard from him; it's been kind of paying for a seat for somebody that nobody's sitting in it."

In the 2011 provincial election, 72.5 per cent of voters turned out in River Heights. The Liberals took the seat by 1,367 votes ahead of the PCs.

Adams said heading into the final stretch, the PCs need to continue running a "careful campaign." Meanwhile, the Liberals need to focus on highlighting high-profile candidates like Gerrard, he said.

And if the NDP want a shot at re-election, they will have to work on pulling "soft-supporters" back from the Liberals, Adams said.

Manitobans head to the polls April 19.

About the Author

Jill Coubrough

Reporter, CBC News

Jill Coubrough is a video journalist with CBC News based in Winnipeg. Before joining CBC Manitoba, she worked as a reporter for CBC News in Halifax and an associate producer for CBC's documentary series Land and Sea. She holds a degree in political studies from the University of Manitoba and a degree in journalism from the University of King's College in Halifax. Email: jillian.coubrough@cbc.ca.

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