Paul Davis wins PC leadership, becomes premier-designate
Defeats Ottenheimer to lead party that has been struggling in the polls
Paul Davis, a former police officer who switched to provincial politics just four years ago, won Newfoundland and Labrador's Tory leadership on Saturday night.
Davis polled 351 votes out 678 votes cast on an unexpected third ballot, edging out former health minister John Ottenheimer.
Davis immediately moved to put the governing Tories on a unified footing as the party prepares for a general election expected in 2015.
"Today we leave as one united team," Davis told delegates, adding that the work on seeking a fourth straight mandate would start immediately.
Speaking minutes later with CBC News, Davis acknowledged that the Tories have to make bold moves to regain strength. The Tories have been lagging well behind the Opposition Liberals for more than a year.
"We need to reconnect with the population," Davis said. "This is about listening to what is on their minds, and then responding to what their priorities are … We have a lot of work to do."
Davis, who will have to call an election within 12 months of being sworn in, said he is up to the challenge.
"If I didn't think I could turn this around, I would not have entered the race," he said.
Ottenheimer was gracious in defeat, and applauded Davis for a clean, well-managed campaign.
"The convention has spoken. This should now be unanimous," he told CBC News.
Ottenheimer said he is not sure whether or not he will run in the next election. "That's a discussion and a decision for another day," he said.
Odd twist after 2nd ballot
The convention took an unexpected twist Saturday evening, as delegates were told there was "no clear majority" between the two candidates remaining after the second ballot.
Ottenheimer had taken top position after the first ballot, but Davis gained momentum with an endorsement from third-place candidate Steve Kent, who threw his support behind Davis minutes after learning that he had placed third and would not move on to a second ballot.
But the second-ballot vote threw the convention floor into a tizzy, with organizers scrambling to reach delegates who had already left the St. John's Convention Centre, and then lawyers analyzing the fine print of the party's constitution.
Ottenheimer had 339 votes after the second ballot, while Davis had 340. In order for a winner to be declared, a candidate must have "more than 50 per cent of the valid ballots cast." There was one spoiled ballot out of the 680 cast.
Supporters in the Davis camp weren't pleased with the decision to move to a third ballot. Jerome Kennedy, a lawyer who stepped down as a cabinet minister last year, said in order for Davis to get the 50 per cent plus one needed to be declared a winner, he would need 340.5 votes, an impossible number.
Kennedy said the Davis camp has approached the rules committee to take another look at its decision, and determine whether Davis was, in fact, the winner after the second ballot.
"Hopefully there's enough lawyers around to see if that interpretation is correct," said Kennedy.
Not all were pleased with the decision to put the vote to a third ballot. Kent tweeted "340 to 339 is not a tie," suggesting Davis should have been declared the winner.
Ottenheimer said while he was pleased the voting would head to a third ballot, it wasn't an outcome that anyone on his team had forecast heading into the convention.
Davis said he was also caught off guard by the second ballot results. "I was as surprised as anyone," he said, adding "every vote counts."
Following the first ballot results, Ottenheimer had 289 of a total 683 votes cast. Davis came in second with 253 votes, and Kent third with 141 votes.
"Obviously, I'm disappointed," Kent told reporters, while denying rumours that he had forged an alliance with Davis before the convention even opened.
Not all happy with Kent's endorsement
Not all of Kent's supporters followed suit, however, with at least two members of the governing Tory caucus — Ray Hunter and Calvin Peach — opting instead to support Ottenheimer.
Delegate Cynthia Warford, an Ottenheimer supporter, said Kent should have released his delegation, and warned that the endorsement may be divisive.
The three candidates had pleaded with delegates Saturday to trust them with turning around the party's fortunes, and with taking them to a fourth straight victory in next year's general election.
The three former cabinet ministers are competing for the leadership, each claiming he has the qualities that will win back disaffected voters who have shifted to the Opposition Liberals.
Davis told delegates Saturday that the PCs should never accept dismal predictions about the next election, especially given what has happened in other provinces.
"The pundits and the pollsters were wrong before," said Davis, detailing how polls were wrong in such recent elections as Alberta, British Columbia and Quebec.
"Mark my words, they'll be proven wrong again in Newfoundland and Labrador," said Davis, who asked for support "to inflict prosperity on every region of our great province" through what he said would be continued riches from the province's natural resources.
Kent took aim at the provincial Liberals, citing their hopes to knock the governing Tories out of power, saying he plans to keep the PC party in power in the next provincial election.
Kent takes aim at Liberals
"The Liberals think that all they have to do is wait us out, play out the clock, make no mistakes, and people will welcome them back. Well, I say this to the Liberals: it's not going to happen," said Kent, referring to the Liberals' ambition to form a new government in the next election.
Ottenheimer used his speech to outline plans to earn back voter trust, despite a rough political road for government in the last year.
"To the naysayers who delight in our perceived demise, I serve you notice," he said.
"From this day forward, the PC Party of Newfoundland and Labrador will no longer be in decline. From this day onward, we begin the strong march back to win the confidence and support of every Newfoundlander and Labradorian," said Ottenheimer.
Winding road for the PCs
The PCs, who have been in power since Danny Williams led them to a 2003 breakthrough, have been struggling in the polls since last year and have had a leadership process that's taken numerous twists since Kathy Dunderdale quit under pressure last January.
Even Tom Marshall, who took over as premier in January for what he expected to be a few months, admits the Tories have been fighting fatigue.
"We've been around for  years, and usually in that time, people start saying they're looking for change," said Marshall, who plans to retire as soon as the next premier is sworn in.
The most recent Corporate Research Associates poll put the Tories at 26 per cent of support among decided voters, far behind the Liberals' 58 per cent.
Moreover, pollster Don Mills said that with the gap widening, there is very little time for the Tories to turn around their ship in time for the next general election. The new premier must call a vote within 12 months of being sworn in.
"It really shows that after 10 years of being government, the Conservatives have really run out of steam in Newfoundland and Labrador," Mills, CRA's president, said in an interview last week.
The party has lost three consecutive byelections to the Liberals, losing seats that had been held by Dunderdale and two of her former top ministers.
Nonetheless, each candidate for the leadership has insisted that he is up to the challenge and can bring about change while also acknowledging that the governing party has made mistakes.
Unusual route to convention floor
The route that the Tories have taken to the convention floor has been an unusual one. After Dunderdale quit — amid a caucus defection and a public outcry over her handling of power outages in early January — not a single member of the Tory caucus stepped forward to run when a leadership race was called.
Instead, three outsiders stepped up. Howley councillor Wayne Bennett was ejected over comments that some Tories felt were offensive while Corner Brook seafood processor Bill Barry quit before Easter while complaining that the race had been fixed.
That was because most insiders were backing Frank Coleman, a soft-spoken Corner Brook businessman. Despite having no experience with elected politics, Coleman was poised to become premier at a convention that had been set for early July.
Weeks before the convention, though, Coleman withdrew, citing a crisis involving a member of his family.
After the Tories scrambled to organize a new race, Davis, Kent and Ottenheimer prepared leadership bids.
Memorial University political scientist Steve Tomblin said the party faces a steep climb to regain the trust of voters and that he worries the winner of the convention will use taxpayer dollars to speed up the journey.
"We have politicians who are now in positions of power who are really kind of desperate to mobilize public opinion," he said.