New Brunswick·Analysis

Ousted by Liberal wave in 2015, trio of Conservatives try to retake seats

Three former Conservative MPs in southern New Brunswick who lost in the 2015 federal election are back trying to turn their ridings blue. Their Liberal opponents see this as a chance to show the Conservatives are backward-looking.

Former MPs Rob Moore, Rodney Weston and John Williamson hope to flip 3 southern New Brunswick ridings

From left, Conservative candidates Rodney Weston, Rob Moore and John Williamson are hoping to retake the federal seats they held prior to the Liberal wave in New Brunswick four years ago. (CBC)

Rob Moore remembers how it slowly crept up on him: the realization that the 2015 election was going to be far more challenging than he expected.

Moore went into that campaign as the favourite. He was first elected a Conservative MP in 2004 and won the riding of Fundy, later Fundy Royal, three more times.

But "we could sense that it was going to be tighter and tighter as the campaign went on," Moore recalled.

"It certainly didn't start off close, but by the end of it, we recognized that it was going to be very close."

It was, but not in Moore's favour. He lost to Liberal Alaina Lockhart by 1,775 votes. A Liberal wave crashed into normally safe Conservative ridings, helping Justin Trudeau win all 10 of New Brunswick's federal seats.

Four years later, Moore and two other former Conservative MPs defeated in 2015 are hoping the Liberal tide is going back out in these three ridings along the Bay of Fundy.

Moore, the Conservative candidate in Fundy Royal, says he's focused more on the party's agenda than on leaders past or present. (CBC)

Moore, Rodney Weston and John Williamson are back on the ballot. All three say Trudeau has not delivered the change voters wanted.

"People feel now they were sold a bill of goods," Moore said. "By most measures, Justin Trudeau and his government and the MPs in the region have been a disappointment." 

Liberals say Tories 'not evolving'

For Liberals, the attempted triple comeback is an opportunity to portray Conservatives as backward-looking.

"It speaks volumes to how the Conservative Party of Canada is not changing, is not evolving, is not embracing new thoughts, new people and new ideas," said Saint John-Rothesay Liberal candidate Wayne Long.

"I constantly hear it at the doors: 'Are you telling me that after four years, after each of them losing, that they haven't moved on?'" 

Saint John-Rothesay MP Wayne Long, pictured here with fellow Liberal Karen Ludwig, running in New Brunswick Southwest, says the return of the former Conservative MPs shows the party isn't 'evolving.'

The 2015 Liberal wave was driven by a surge of support for Trudeau.

"Definitely I was helped by the national trend," said New Brunswick Southwest candidate Karen Ludwig.

There was also fatigue with Stephen Harper, who had been Conservative prime minister for almost a decade. 

"I would hear, 'I like you, but,' and you knew what was coming," said Weston, the Saint John-Rothesay Conservative candidate. "It's not uncommon to have that after a government's been in office and a prime minister's been in office after 10 years." 

Political scientist J.P. Lewis of the University of New Brunswick in Saint John said the Conservative vote was down in 2015, but the Liberal wins were also driven by increased voter turnout.

This time, the results in the three ridings will hinge on "how much Trudeau has become a drag on the vote," he said.

History and current dynamics would appear to favour a return to Conservative voting traditions.

Comparing records

Williamson, the third member of the Conservative comeback crew, said he's running on "a voting record that reflects the values and priorities of constituents in New Brunswick Southwest." 

That includes criticism of Ludwig for voting for the Trudeau government's Bill C-71, which toughened background checks on gun owners. Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer has promised to repeal it.

Williamson, the Conservative candidate in New Brunswick Southwest, is critical of Ludwig for supporting tougher background checks for gun owners. (CBC)

Ludwig said that she's happy to compare her record to Williamson's and that she listened to voters, particularly women, who were worried about guns. She "erred on the side of public safety" by supporting the bill. 

While Saint John-Rothesay is more of a swing riding, the provincial Progressive Conservatives nearly swept the area last fall, in part thanks to the perception that the proposed Energy East pipeline was cancelled due to Liberal policies. 

But the three Liberal incumbents in the three ridings say Conservative comebacks are not a sure thing. 

"I very rarely talk to someone who says, 'We should go backwards,'" Lockhart said as she knocked on doors in Quispamsis.

She said suburban bedroom communities at both ends of Fundy Royal have plenty of voters with ideas "quite different than some of the Conservative ideology."

"I know what the past has said about this riding, but in 2015 we showed there was a strong progressive voice here and that's what we're hearing at the doors." 

'He's not my kind of guy'

Even so, fatigue with Trudeau could be as big a problem for her as Harper fatigue was for Moore. 

"I'm not happy with the way the leader operates," one resident told Lockhart on his doorstep. "He's not my kind of guy." 

That may explain why Lockhart puts more emphasis on Liberal policies, such as the Canada Child Tax Benefit, and on her own record.  

"People really took a chance on me as a representative, and I've really focused in the last four years on being in the communities and being accessible and being a partner," she said. 

"I'd rather focus on the work I've done, what I've accomplished in this election."

Weston is challenging Long in Saint John-Rothesay after losing his seat in 2015. (CBC)

Long is even more explicit, saying voters like his accessibility and transparency but tell him they're "disappointed" with his leader.

He said he responds by asking them if they want Conservative Leader Scheer as prime minister — they usually say no, he claimed — and by emphasizing his own record of bucking the Liberal Party line. 

In 2017, Long broke ranks and voted with Conservative MPs trying to extend consultations on a controversial proposed small-business tax increase. 

He also called for an independent investigation into the SNC Lavalin controversy and opposed ejecting MPs Jody Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott from the Liberal caucus. 

"I don't apologize for being an independently minded Liberal," Long said. "I think finally this riding can get behind a candidate that has their back here, has their back against industry, has their back against the party if need be. Candidates should be riding first." 

Not surprisingly, his Conservative opponent, Weston, is telling voters not to buy it. 

"People understand that a vote for him is a vote for Justin Trudeau," Weston said. "People understand that very clearly."

Ludwig also acknowledged hearing concerns about Trudeau on doorsteps, though she said some of it is based on misinformation.

"The name on the ballot is a local candidate," she said.

With both Harper and Trudeau representing potential baggage, the candidates prefer to spar about "deliverables" — what they did for their ridings while in power — and policy. 

Moore laments that the Liberals eliminated Conservative-created children`s sports and arts tax credits, which Scheer is promising to bring back.

Liberal Alaina Lockhart flipped the riding long held by Moore in 2015. (CBC)

Lockhart said those "boutique" credits only benefit "those who can afford to spend in the first place," while Liberal tax cuts benefited the middle class more broadly. 

Both seem anxious to avoid a lengthy discussion of their own leaders.

"What we're talking about is not Trudeau years or Harper years," Moore said. "We're moving forward. We've got a forward-looking agenda." 

"I'm more focused in this election on talking about our plan for the future," Lockhart said.

Despite that rhetoric, the three races here may be determined by which past — a decade of Harper or four years of Trudeau — voters are more anxious to discard.

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