Liberals aim for B.C. breakthrough in Monday's byelection vote

The Liberals have proven their polling gains in Quebec with a byelection win in October. Can they do the same on Monday in British Columbia?

Voters in South Surrey–White Rock go to the polls on Monday, 1 of 4 byelections being held

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, left, hopes South Surrey–White Rock, where Gordie Hogg, right, is the Liberal candidate in Monday's byelection, is one of several seats the Liberals could win in B.C. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

The Liberals are banking on a breakthrough in Quebec to secure another majority government in 2019. The party's byelection win in Lac-Saint-Jean in October sent a strong signal they are on track for that breakthrough.

A byelection next Monday might provide the same indication of the Liberals' electoral prospects in British Columbia, another key province in the party's 2019 re-election strategy.

In only two provinces are the Liberals currently polling better than their 2015 election performance.

The party is leading in Quebec with 43.4 per cent, according to the CBC Poll Tracker (as of Dec. 4). That is nearly eight percentage points better than the party's vote share two years ago and could deliver the Liberals another 15 to 20 seats.

This would more than make up for potential losses in Ontario and Atlantic Canada, where the party's lead over the Conservatives has narrowed.

But the Liberals are also in a better position in B.C., at 38.4 per cent, up more than three points over their 2015 result. That could move another three to five seats into the Liberal column, just enough to compensate for potential losses in Alberta and the Prairies.

South Surrey–White Rock, a suburban riding southeast of Vancouver, is one of those possible B.C. gains and is the location of one of four byelections taking place on Dec. 11.

The riding has voted for right-of-centre parties since the 1970s, but the Liberals came close to taking the seat in 2015. Former Surrey mayor Dianne Watts, who resigned as an MP in September to run for the leadership of the B.C. Liberal Party, won the riding for the Conservatives with 44 per cent of the vote two years ago. The Liberals' Judy Higginbotham finished with 41.5 per cent.

South Surrey–White Rock a swing seat

The Conservatives are putting forward former cabinet minister Kerry-Lynne Findlay (who represented an adjacent constituency before her defeat in 2015) while the Liberals are presenting Gordie Hogg, who was the Surrey–White Rock B.C. Liberal MLA for 20 years prior to stepping aside in the run-up to the 2017 provincial election.

The 2.5-point gap between the Conservatives and Liberals in 2015 in South Surrey–White Rock is less than the 4.5-point swing that the polls suggest has taken place in B.C. between the two parties since then. That would put the seat in range of the Liberals, even without taking into consideration the appeal of the candidates on the ballot.

South Surrey-White Rock Conservative byelection candidate Kerry-Lynne Findlay, right, sits with Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer during an interview at a cafe, while campaigning in Surrey, B.C., on Monday. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press )

Hogg's profile in the riding — he was also the mayor of White Rock before running for provincial office — makes him a strong candidate. But the province-wide polls suggest that a generic Liberal candidate would have also had a good shot of winning.

This wasn't the case in Lac-Saint-Jean, where the Liberals overcame a very significant margin to take the seat away from the Conservatives in October. The profile of Richard Hébert, mayor of one of the larger towns in Lac-Saint-Jean, went a long way toward bridging the gap.

The results in South Surrey–White Rock might prove to be a test of the Liberals' support in British Columbia. If Hogg wins, whether by a narrow or wide margin, it will corroborate the Liberals' promising poll numbers in the province. If he doesn't, it will suggest that the Liberals could struggle to make the gains in B.C. that they will need to make-up for losses elsewhere in Western Canada.

Liberal potential for B.C. gains

There are a number of seats in the province which could be on the bubble in 2019.

In addition to Conservative-held seats in Richmond and further east in the Fraser Valley, there are a number of seats in the B.C. Interior — particularly in the Okanagan — that could move over to the Liberals if the party makes some gains in the province.

In the immediate aftermath of the government's decision to approve the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline, the Liberals did take a hit in support in British Columbia.

But the Conservative seats the Liberals might be targeting in 2019 in the Vancouver suburbs and the Interior voted strongly in favour of the B.C. Liberals in the 2017 provincial election, showing how the issue's impact can vary depending on the region of the province.

The B.C. Liberals were in favour of the pipeline, as opposed to the B.C. New Democrats, who captured a number of ridings away from the B.C. Liberals around the terminus of the pipeline.

Federal NDP drooping in B.C.

But the weakness of the federal New Democrats also plays into the calculations for the Liberals in the province.

The New Democrats took just 10.4 per cent of the vote in South Surrey–White Rock in 2015 and so aren't expected to be in contention for the seat. But the Liberals will need some of that vote to put Hogg over the top. How that vote moves may provide some clues as to how the NDP is doing in B.C. as a whole.

The polls suggest the party is struggling, down seven points from the last federal election. That is contributing to the Liberals' boost in the province, but it also puts a number of NDP seats at risk. The loss of NDP support alone might be enough to deliver more seats to the Liberals in the Greater Vancouver region and on Vancouver Island, whether or not the Liberals gain those lost NDP votes.

The Greens, up five points since the last election, may instead be the main beneficiaries — though it is unlikely to win them many new seats.

The byelection in South Surrey–White Rock will not decide the fate of the Liberal government. But voters just like those who will be casting ballots on Monday will decide its fate in less than two years. The byelection will provide a sneak peek of what they're thinking.


Éric Grenier

Politics and polls

Éric Grenier is a senior writer and the CBC's polls analyst. He was the founder of ThreeHundredEight.com and has written for The Globe and Mail, Huffington Post Canada, The Hill Times, Le Devoir, and L’actualité.


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