Take a seat: How to win an open riding

Canadians living in dozens of ridings across Canada are guaranteed to have new MPs this fall, as their incumbents are not standing for re-election. We spoke to experts about what a newcomer may do in a bid to pick up these seats.

Dozens of incumbents not up for re-election opening the door to possible change

Cheryl Hardcastle of the NDP, left, Frank Schiller of the Liberals and Conservative Jo-Anne Gignac are vying for the empty Windsor-Tecumseh seat, left vacant by the NDP's Joe Comartin. (CBC)

Every election brings change of some sort, with new issues to debate, new voters to woo and new faces to put forward.

But some ridings end up seeing more change than others, particularly those ridings in which the incumbent heads for the exit before the ballots are printed.

All parties see this type of turnover in the run-up to an election, as elected members choose new pursuits and leave politics.

In this election, there are dozens of ridings where this scenario is unfolding across the country, including in the southwestern Ontario riding of Windsor-Tecumseh, where voters are guaranteed to have a new MP this fall.

That's because long-time MP Joe Comartin won't be running again.

Comartin was elected to Parliament on five consecutive occasions, starting with the federal election in 2000.  The five-term New Democrat MP announced last year that he wouldn't be running again.

Comartin said he wanted to give early notice so that his party could get a candidate on board to run in his place.

The New Democrats have nominated Cheryl Hardcastle as their candidate in Windsor-Tecumseh. She's up against Conservative candidate Jo-Anne Gignac and Liberal candidate Frank Schiller. David Momotiuk is running for the Green Party in the same riding.

Will the NDP keep Comartin's seat?

In the last election, approximately half the people who cast valid ballots in Windsor-Tecumseh voted for Comartin.

But that doesn't mean that the New Democrats will necessarily hang onto the seat that was Comartin's for the past 15 years.

Laure Paquette, an associate professor in the department of political science at Lakehead University, says it's worth looking at the history of a riding in order to determine how competitive a newcomer may be in a riding where a long-term incumbent is not running for re-election. (John Nistico)

Laure Paquette, an associate professor in the department of political science at Lakehead University, says that Canada has a low incumbent return rate as compared to other places like the United States.

That means fewer names stay familiar when Canadian voters head to the polls.

"Only 60 per cent of people who are incumbents actually get returned," Paquette said in a recent telephone interview.

As a result, Paquette said it can be instructive to look to the past and see what the trends are, when considering the prospects for newcomers in a seemingly open race like Windsor-Tecumseh.

Of course, anyone who watches politics in the Windsor area knows that the initial road to incumbency can begin with the defeat of a well-known figure.

Comartin's own first term in office came in an election in which he squeaked ahead of Rick Limoges, a former city councillor, who had been the Liberal MP for Windsor—St. Clair for about a year and a half at that point. In 2000, Comartin won by just over 400 votes.

Over the course of the next four elections, Comartin climbed from about 40 to 50 per cent of the popular vote, according to official results archived by Elections Canada.

Similarly, Jeff Watson, the Conservative candidate in the nearby riding of Essex, was elected by defeating the incumbent in that rural riding 11 years ago.

In 2004, Watson bested Liberal candidate Susan Whelan, the daughter of the late Eugene Whelan, by more than 800 votes. She had been the riding's MP for seven years at the time of her defeat.

A reboot versus a rerun

Different strategies will be in play for a candidate trying to carry on a tradition from a long-term incumbent, versus challengers trying to turn the page in a riding.

In the Windsor-Tecumseh example, this would be Hardcastle trying to win the seat that Comartin held. Gignac, Momotiuk and Schiller, however, stand in her way.

Laura Stephenson, an associate professor in the department of political science at Western University, says the personal popularity of a departing incumbent is a big factor in whether another person from the same party can then carry the riding in an election. (

Laura Stephenson, an associate professor in the department of political science at Western University, says that some long-term incumbents may develop a following that is independent of the boost they receive from their party.

And that can be something to work with, when a potential successor is on the campaign trail.

But Stephenson said the trouble is that "you can't really disentangle it until they are no longer running."

That being said, Stephenson said that a candidate can look to that prior incumbent to endorse them or campaign alongside them.

The people opposing this process will emphasize the opportunity for a reboot in the riding.

"If people say: 'Ah, well, I always vote for so and so,' well now you can't vote for so and so maybe they will take another look because he's not running anymore," she said.

Stephenson said another strategy for these challengers is to highlight their link to their own party, if that is an advantage for them.

"You may see that they choose to focus on being part of the team of the party, or the party leader, because that's definitely something that would set people apart," she said.


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