Saskatchewan

Lone Sask. Liberal Ralph Goodale facing challenge to keep election streak alive

For 26 straight years, Ralph Goodale has been the representative in Parliament for Regina Wascana — often the lone splash of red on an electoral map covered in Tory blue with sprinkles of NDP orange.

Goodale seeking 9th straight federal election victory

Ralph Goodale said he is not complacent as he seeks a ninth straight election win. (Matthew Howard/CBC)

Ralph Goodale is an anomaly. 

For 26 straight years, he has been the representative in parliament for Regina Wascana — often the lone splash of red on an electoral map covered in Tory blue with sprinkles of NDP orange.

So how is Goodale able to keep winning?

"It's not a Liberal riding, it's a Goodale riding for sure," said David Herle, a political strategist and pollster.

"There are 14 federal ridings in Saskatchewan. In [2011] half of all the people in Saskatchewan who voted for the Liberal Party voted for Ralph."

Goodale has won eight straight elections, starting in 1993. Before the current election period began, he was tied as the third-longest-serving active MP. He was first elected to Parliament in 1974 at age 24.

"I had no intention for this to be a long-term endeavour," Goodale said. 

"But at the same time it never occurred to me in that first election back in Assiniboia in 1974 that I might lose. As it turns out, we won."

Ralph Goodale's campaign poster for his run for president of the Saskatchewan Young Liberals in the 1960s. (Submitted by Ralph Goodale's campaign office)

The initial win would be followed, though, by a string of losses for more than a decade.

Now seeking a ninth straight election victory, Goodale faces familiar criticisms of western abandonment by Ottawa and a motivated Conservative challenger in Michael Kram, who Goodale defeated in the 2015 election.

None of this has him considering leaving politics. He said that decision will be made by his constituents.

"Voters always ultimately have the final decision. Never assume you're entitled to a vote. Go over there and earn it," Goodale said.

Political obituary

After his breakthrough in 1974, Goodale lost in federal elections in 1979 and 1980, after which he moved to provincial politics and lost a provincial byelection in Estevan. 

Goodale became Saskatchewan Liberal Party Leader in 1981 and was again defeated in the 1982 provincial election. Four years later, he won the party's only seat in the legislature. In 1988, he would step down to seek a federal seat, only to lose in that year's election.

If you're keeping score — that's two wins and five losses at the polls in 14 years.

"I had the humbling experience of writing Ralph Goodale's political obituary in 1988," said Dale Eisler, a former Regina Leader-Post journalist.

"I figured having lost federally three times and provincially twice and then resigning after winning provincially, there were no other avenues open. But of course, I underestimated Ralph."

Eisler referred to Goodale's lonely years as provincial Liberal leader to a "long-distance runner."

He recalls Goodale "sitting in the Speaker's gallery day in, day out for question period. The one that didn't have a seat in the legislature."

Before he made his way back to Ottawa, Goodale's executive assistant was Jason Kenney — now the premier of Alberta.

Goodale vs. Merchant

To keep his political career alive, Goodale had to win the party's nomination in 1993 for the riding of Regina Wascana.

For help, he called on David Herle, who first worked for Goodale in 1980 as a volunteer on his byelection bid in Estevan. 

"He's my first mentor in politics," said Herle, who went on to run campaigns for Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin.

"Without him, I wouldn't have had the life in politics that I've had. He trusted me at a very young age. He's a remarkable mentor."

In 1993, Herle came back from Ontario to help Goodale win the Regina Wascana nomination against well-known Regina lawyer Tony Merchant.

"It was the biggest nomination that Saskatchewan had had in quite some time," said Herle.

Ralph Goodale in 1993, after winning the riding of Regina Wascana. (CBC)

Merchant sold more memberships, he said, but Goodale had more supporters show up in the end.

"It was the people that were determined to elect Ralph that made the difference."

Goodale's main challenger 'optimistic'

This fall, Goodale is in for another battle. 

He is facing an anti-Liberal sentiment in the Western Canada, a billboard campaign, and criticism of his party's energy policies — most notably the carbon tax. 

He's also faced pointed criticism from Premier Scott Moe over pool projects in Regina.

And for the first time in his 26-year run, Goodale has an opponent taking a run at him in a second straight election.

"I'm starting to feel optimistic. The feedback I'm getting this time has been very positive compared to four years ago," said Regina Wascana Conservative candidate Michael Kram.

Goodale beat Kram by 10,000 votes in 2015.

"You have to reapply for your job every four years, and just because you won 10 or 20 years ago doesn't mean you'll win this time around."

Kram says he has heard "many people" on the doorstep tell him they have voted for Goodale in the past but are switching their vote to the Conservative Party this time.

These billboards popped up around Regina in the spring and are part of a soon to be multi-province ad campaign aimed at Liberal MPs and party leader Justin Trudeau. (Marie-Christine Bouillon/Radio-Canada)

Herle, though, says the seat is the Liberal "beachhead" in Saskatchewan.

"Ralph Goodale is one of the most talented people in the government. It would be a terrible blow for the government to lose him," he said.

University of Regina political studies professor Jim Farney thinks Goodale is in for a bigger challenge this year.

"I would guess that the race is going to be closer than it was last time, but that kind of name recognition — the 30 years of networking in public service — is probably going to see another Goodale victory," he said.

Goodale said he will ignore polls.

"I always assume you're 100 votes behind and you've got to go find those 100 extra supporters," he said.

"You're always working at the task of earning support."

Goodale has faced anti-government sentiment before, including in 2011, when the Liberals won the lowest number of seats in their history.

"Any Liberal who was able to survive the 2011 election is one of the safest Liberals in the country," said CBC polling analyst Éric Grenier. 

The other candidates in Wascana are Hailey Clark (NDP), Tamela Friesen (Green Party) and Mario Milanovski (People's Party of Canada).

'Goodale Liberals'

Since 1993, a second Liberal MP has been elected in Saskatchewan on two occasions.

"Most Canadians vote for parties first and they'll pay attention to who their representative is after. I think with Ralph, it's the other way around. It's a really deep personal connection," the U of R's Farney said.

"He represents the party people in Saskatchewan don't like and after 40 years, he's more popular than he ever was before," agreed Herle.

"In his own constituency, they refer to 'Goodale Liberals,'" said Eisler.

"So these are people who maybe aren't Liberals in the sense of strong adherence to the Liberal Party of Canada, but they feel a real sort of commitment to Goodale because they see him as a competent and credible guy."

Regina Wascana Conservative candidate Michael Kram, right, hopes to take the seat from Goodale on Oct. 21. 'Just because you won 10 or 20 years ago doesn't mean you'll win this time around,' he says. (CBC)

Eisler added Goodale is seen around Regina at events and has given the city a voice at the cabinet table.

"There are some MPs I've seen over time that have, once they got elected … moved to Ottawa and then went back to their riding when they wanted to,"  Goodale said. 

"Your approach has to be the other way around. I've always lived in Regina Wascana. I go to Ottawa when I have to."

Goodale, who turns 70 two weeks before election day, said he is motivated by seeing policy through. He highlighted his support for the "Big Dig," which deepened Regina's Wascana Lake, and a newer proposal to have Lake Diefenbaker linked to the Qu'Appelle Valley river system.

"There's always a new challenge," Goodale said. "There's always a new issue to be tackled or problem to be solved."

Goodale's latest challenge will come when Canadians vote on Oct. 21.

About the Author

Adam Hunter

Journalist

Adam Hunter is the provincial affairs reporter at CBC Saskatchewan, based in Regina. He has been with CBC for 12 years. He hosts the CBC podcast On the Ledge. Follow him on Twitter @AHiddyCBC. Contact him: adam.hunter@cbc.ca

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