Nfld. & Labrador

Cochrane | A weekend of change and challenge for the PCs

The Tories govern from a building under renovation and will pick a new leader from an under-renovation convention centre, but their biggest repair job faces is fixing a broken relationship with voters, David Cochrane writes.

PC leadership: How we got here

7 years ago
3:49
David Cochrane reports on N.L.'s governing Tories and the events that led to the leadership convention 3:49

The Progressive Conservatives govern the province from an under-renovation Confederation Building and the party will select its new leader from an under-renovation Convention Centre. But the biggest repair job the governing party faces is its broken relationship with voters.

The party was counting on Leadership Race II to give it a bounce in the polls.

  • Live PC convention coverage starts Saturday at 2:30 p.m. on TV, radio & online

The hope was that a struggling and aging government would get the kind of boost the Liberals got during their leadership race last year.

Hundreds of delegates will fill these seats on Saturday to choose Newfoundland and Labrador's 12th premier. (CBC)

Instead, the Tories saw a margin-of-error level drop in the most recent numbers from Corporate Research Associates. At best, you could say their support is stable. At worst, you could say it was flat or in decline.

Bad numbers and a three-game losing streak of your own seats in byelections is no way to go into a leadership convention. But it’s the reality the Tories face as they choose between three men to become the new leader and 12th premier of Newfoundland and Labrador.

The larger question isn’t who will win on Saturday; it’s this: Who can win in 2015?

Getting to 50% plus 1

But to even get to that point, Paul Davis, Steve Kent or John Ottenheimer has to climb the 50 per cent plus one mountain at convention. Nobody expects that to happen on the first ballot. So how do party insiders expect Saturday to play out?

John Ottenheimer returned to politics this summer, after leaving the House of Assembly in 2007. (CBC)

The party has been expecting about 700 voters on the first ballot, so the magic number for victory is 351. (This number will change as delegate registration is finalized. I’m using it here to illustrate the pre-convention scoreboard).

If nobody gets more than 351 on the first ballot, the last place candidate is dropped from the race and a second round of voting occurs.

The Ottenheimer and Davis camps both insist that they are in first place with the other candidate a close second. They peg Kent as a solid but distant third. Ottenheimer and Davis each claim about 280-300 delegates, while placing their top rival in the 260-270 range and Kent at about 140-160.

There is a remarkable consistency in the Ottenheimer and Davis projections in terms of range. The order varies in favour of the camp making the prediction.

Unsurprisingly, Kent’s team disputes all of this. They claim to either be in second place or neck-and-neck for second with Ottenheimer. Kent supporters believe that he has about 30 per cent of the delegates on board, enough to put him in the 200-210 range.

Kent’s goal is to get to the second ballot where he thinks his strong performance in the debates and his convention speech can put him over the top.

A Davis-Kent alliance?

The most likely scenario is that Davis wins on the second ballot, even though it is quite feasible that Ottenheimer could be first after the initial round of voting.

Paul Davis worked for 25 years as a police officer before entering provincial politics in 2010. (CBC)

The Ottenheimer campaign has accused Davis and Kent of playing two-against-one in the delegate selection meetings and many of Otteneheimer’s top people argue there is a second ballot alliance between the two sitting MHAs.

Whether this formal alliance is real or not, Davis and Kent supporters appear to have more commonalities with each other than with Ottenheimer.

A quick look at the CBC endorsement tracker reveals a trend among sitting politicians.

Davis and Kent have the support of MHAs who are young, early in their careers or certain to seek re-election in 2015. Ottenheimer is backed by politicians who are largely retired or not certain to run again.

It’s a political generation gap, and one that is much easier for Kent and Davis to bridge. This is such a concern for the Ottenheimer team that top campaign officials say they need to be within 30 to 50 votes of the victory point on the first ballot or Davis will win the leadership.

The dynamic of any delegated convention is fluid, and that is evident in the gossip amongst the delegates.

Ottenheimer supporters say the Kent delegates are wavering and ripe to be poached — even before the first ballot is cast. Kent’s supporters say the same about Ottenheimer and are targeting his delegates to leapfrog to second place.

Davis supporters think their numbers are solid and will deliver a solid lead on the first ballot. The other campaigns predictably think the opposite.

The churn of delegate support

What has also become apparent this week is that – despite the supreme confidence of whispered gossip — the camps may not have a very clear sense on just how firm their supporters are. All three campaigns say they are bleeding delegates back and forth.

The youngest leadership candidate, Steve Kent may play a kingmaker role at Saturday's convention. (CBC)

The churn is almost daily, with some delegates vowing support to all three candidates. The estimate is that as many as 15 to 20 per cent of delegates may be undecided, backsliding, playing coy or flat-out lying about who they will vote for. This has forced the campaigns to take a conservative approach in assessing their support and could lead to one or more candidates being surprised or feeling betrayed (or both) when the results roll in.

Whoever wins Saturday is immediately on the clock. Provincial law dictates that the winner must call an election within 12 months of their official swearing in as premier.

The Tories have lost three straight byelections in seats formerly held by their biggest names.

They face three more byelections this fall, to replace the retired Charlene Johnson and the soon-to-retire Terry French and Tom Marshall. There is a prize to be won this weekend, but is it a prize with an expiration date?

As I said, the larger question for the Progressive Conservatives isn’t who will win on Saturday — it’s who can win in 2015.

Or, more accurately, can anyone in the party win in 2015? 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

David Cochrane is a senior reporter in CBC's Parliamentary bureau. He previously wrote for CBC Newfoundland and Labrador.

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