The Tories might not have won the election, but they didn't quite lose it all, either
The PCs are now in a position to reinvent themselves as they aim to wear down the governing Liberals
If the polls were to be believed — and that's a weighty phrase, one we'll return to in a minute — Newfoundland and Labrador's Liberals were just a few months ago on a path to crush the Tories.
It didn't work out that way, of course. Premier Andrew Furey got the majority he wanted, but not by much: with just 22 of the province's 40 districts, he has a mandate, but also just barely enough seats in the House of Assembly. He won the race after a campaign plagued with problems and the lowest turnout in the province's history. Challenges are now heading to the courts that could change the political math in at least three districts, and potentially the outcome itself.
In other words, a small majority offers a thin level of comfort for a nascent politician who has vowed to transform how Newfoundland and Labrador is governed.
Going into January's fateful election call, things might have looked different to Furey, the orthopedic surgeon who by that point had just less than half a year in the premier's chair. A lot of attention was paid to the data that guided that decision, particularly in terms of epidemiology and COVID-19. At first, the government said it could not release that data because of cabinet confidentiality. Furey ultimately admitted that it was all in publicly available reports.
While that whole mini-episode was not the best look for a government that talks about transparency, it's difficult to imagine that other data — that is, public opinion polling — had been in the mix.
In December, Narrative Research reported that 67 per cent of decided voters would pick the Liberals if an election were called. The prior quarterly poll from Narrative (formerly Corporate Research Associates) had the Liberals at 69 per cent. Shortly after the election was called, a poll from Mainstreet Research found the Liberals were holding at 62 per cent.
Those were not just good numbers for the Liberals. As CBC polling analyst Éric Grenier put it, "the party kicked off the campaign on track for a landslide."
Which is also to say, the PCs looked like they were going to suffer a rout.
And … they did not.
No wipeout at all
The election sputtered to a close with a data dump of released results on March 27, 10 weeks after it was called. The Liberals finished with about 48 per cent of the vote. The Tories had just under 39 per cent. In the end, the Tories formed a respectable caucus of 13 seats: a drop of two, but healthier than some might have expected.
One of those lost seats belonged to the party's leader, Ches Crosbie, who had hung in for another election after a failed bid against Dwight Ball's Liberals in May 2019.
Crosbie's loss in Windsor Lake was not shocking. Among the leaders, he polled lower than the party itself, meaning that he was not bringing much to the table beyond the party faithful. During the campaign, PC candidate signage did not promote the leader, while the Liberal signs were plastered with "Team Furey." Despite advertising that playfully tackled Crosbie's wonky image, party statements were often attributed to individual candidates, perhaps to bolster specific campaigns.
One of the most awkward moments of the campaign said a lot about the Tory camp. Chris Tibbs, the incumbent MHA in Grand Falls-Windsor Buchans, posted (and then deleted) a social media video in which he said he would "absolutely" consider a run for the Tory leadership. That's pretty remarkable, given that a) the job was not currently open and b) the party was purportedly presenting itself as a Ches Crosbie government in the wings.
In the campaign's final days, it seemed that Crosbie had no real expectations of moving into Confederation Building's eighth floor. Even while ballots were still being mailed in, the PCs privately telegraphed to a colleague that they had their eye on as many as 10 possible recount challenges — hardly the posture of a party expecting to form government.
Before things ultimately ground to an end, the Tories were not even certain that Crosbie would have anything to say on March 27, when Elections NL released the results.
In the end, Crosbie's staff supplied a recorded video. I noticed the most interesting detail: the party sent it to the media through a shared folder, which meant I was able to see through version history that the video had originally been called "Speech 6 — Clear Liberal majority — loss in Windsor Lake — concession." It had been uploaded the day before the results were announced. One wonders what the other variations looked like.
WATCH | See the concession speech that Ches Crosbie recorded before the election results were announced:
The PCs meanwhile are getting on with things. David Brazil, a 10-year veteran in the House, has taken on the reins as interim leader, and the party is regrouping. This is not new territory, of course, "this" being the waxing and waning of political clout and public favour. In 1966, a mighty Smallwood victory notoriously slashed the PC caucus down to just three members. But within six years, the Tories were — for the first time in this province — in power, and it was the Liberals' turn to nurse some wounds. That lasted for a full generation.
How will the Tories rebuild?
In other words, things can change. The Liberals have been back in power now for not even six years, and we've already had three elections. While I doubt anyone is anxious to have another one soon, several paths for a PC comeback are presenting themselves.
One is to focus on some former strengths, including the St. John's region. The capital area has over the years been called "Tory town," because of traditional patterns that had the Liberals scooping up rural seats with the PCs dominating the urban vote.
That's not the case at the moment. The electoral map shows a string of seven contiguous Liberal seats, all in areas that the Tories have won in the past. (There's also a NDP and an Independent seat there too.)
Another factor, of course, is the leadership itself. As problematic as this habit can be, voters respond to a strong leader. That's not to rule out Brazil, should he be interested in it for the long term, but many in the party will be looking for a vibrant leadership campaign. [UPDATE: After this column was published, a former PC candidate got in touch to say that the party's constitution rules out an interim leader becoming a permanent leader. This differs from what happened just over a decade ago, when Kathy Dunderdale agreed to become the interim leader after Danny Williams retired. Somehow, unseen decisions were made that scrubbed a planned leadership competition, and Dunderdale thus became leader, and premier, full stop.]
Experienced wags also know that time is on the side of opposition parties. While N.L. voters do not switch governments very often (we've done it only four times, in 1972, 1989, 2003 and 2015), experience has shown that wearing down the governing side is an effective strategy.
The Liberals are in power, but came out of what could have been a blowout with only a small gain in seats.
For the Tories, time may be an asset they can exploit as the province moves into the next political chapter.