Nova Scotia

Tories take Sackville-Cobequid byelection in political landscape shakeup

Steve Craig and the Progressive Conservatives won the Sackville-Cobequid byelection Tuesday night, the first time a party other than the NDP has won there in 34 years.

Seat had been held by the NDP for 34 years before Steve Craig's win Tuesday

Steve Craig enters his victory party, with Tory Leader Tim Houston following behind. Craig is the first PC candidate to win the district in 34 years. (Jean Laroche/CBC)

Steve Craig and the Progressive Conservatives handed the Nova Scotia New Democrats their first loss in the constituency of Sackville-Cobequid in 34 years following a byelection Tuesday.

Craig overtook rookie NDP candidate Lara Fawthrop in the final two polls of 40 to officially report back, finishing the election with 2,655 votes to Fawthrop's 2,472.

Liberal candidate Michel Hindlet was a distant third with 658 votes, just ahead of Green Party candidate Anthony Edmonds who received 488 votes. Atlantica Party candidate David Boyd rounded out the field, receiving 43 votes.

Craig, a councillor for Halifax Regional Municipality, paid tribute to his campaign's organization as a key factor in the win. He said the result is a clear message to the Liberal government.

"I think the government really seriously has to take a look at the Progressive Conservative Party and that we are an absolute threat to form the government in 2021," he told reporters at his campaign victory party.

Premier weighs in

But that's not the way Liberal Premier Stephen McNeil has interpreted his party's distant third-place finish. He cautioned reporters Wednesday not to equate the result with what might happen in the next general election.

"It was a byelection, they had a very good candidate," he said. "But to try to suggest and extrapolate to a general election, I think is just stretching it quite a ways."

He blamed the loss, in part, on what he called the "tough decisions" his government has made since coming to power. He also pointed to a particularly ill-timed closure for the governing Liberals.

"In the midst of that, one of the health clinics in that riding closed," said McNeil. "I mean, obviously that has an impact on that particular riding in that particular community.

"He [Steve Craig] got elected, ran a good campaign. Nothing more than that. This is a byelection."

Major vote shifts

While the next general election may be a couple of years away, the final numbers Tuesday show Craig wasn't just speaking hyperbole.

Even in a byelection, where overall voter turnout of 41.75 per cent was lower than the last two general elections, the Tories received more total votes than the party did in either 2017 (1,991) or 2013 (1,651). Although the NDP saw its vote count decrease and lost a seat that had been as automatic as any in the legislature, it was the Liberals that fell the farthest.

In a district in which they had little chance of winning to begin with, the governing party spent most of the evening neck and neck with the Green Party. The Grits finished with less than a third of the votes they had when Hindlet ran in 2017 (2,038) and even fewer than in 2013, when the Liberals swept to power in their first majority win (2,898).

The result also makes an already challenging situation for the NDP even more difficult. Following the recent departure from caucus of Lenore Zann, who is sitting as an independent while seeking a federal Liberal nomination, the party is now down to just five seats in Province House.

Greens see growth

NDP Leader Gary Burrill said he hadn't given any thought to what Zann's defection and Tuesday's result said about his leadership. Instead, Burrill referenced a 2015 byelection in Cape Breton Centre that his party lost, only to pick up the seat two years later in the general election.

"That's where my thoughts are this evening."

If there was another story line to emerge Tuesday, it was the growth of the Green Party. Edmonds' vote total well exceeded the party's tally of 262 in the last general election.

"Going to doors, many voters would tell me that they identify with the Green values, that they want to vote Green but they're waiting for the right time," he said. "I think the message that I'm seeing is that time is upon us."

The byelection was held after the seat was vacated by the NDP's Dave Wilson, who retired last November after 16 years in the legislature. For the 18 years before that, the seat was held by the NDP's John Holm.

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