Byelections: Liberals win 2 in Toronto, Conservatives hold Alberta

The Liberals nabbed one Toronto riding from the New Democrats and held on to another in federal byelections Monday night, while the Conservative candidates retained electoral districts in Alberta.

Alberta ridings a lock for Tories as Liberals pick up Trinity-Spadina from NDP, hold Scarborough-Agincourt

Liberal Adam Vaughan celebrates his byelection win in the Trinity-Spadina riding with party leader Justin Trudeau at the Steam Whistle Brewery in Toronto on Monday. (Aaron Vincent Elkaim/Canadian Press)

The Liberals nabbed one Toronto riding from the New Democrats and held on to another in federal byelections Monday night, while the Conservatives retained two seats in Alberta.

As was expected in Alberta, Conservative candidates John Barlow and David Yurdiga won in Macleod and Fort McMurray-Athabasca, respectively.

It was a good day for the Liberals and leader Justin Trudeau. The party ran Arnold Chan, a former lawyer and corporate manager, in the densely Chinese-populated Scarborough-Agincourt riding, where he held on to the seat that was for 25 years represented by Jim Karygiannis.

Perhaps the bigger story, however, was new Liberal candidate Adam Vaughan's victory in the hotly contested race against New Democrat Joe Cressy for Trinity-Spadina. The riding had been held by former NDP MP Olivia Chow, who is now running to be mayor of the city.

"Democracy works when we all work with hope and hard work," Vaughan said in his victory speech in Toronto, with Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau at his side and surrounded by young Liberal campaigners in red shirts.

"You don't win elections, you don't build parties, and you don't change governments without bringing new people to the conversation — the Liberals have always been very, very good at this," Vaughan added.

NDP strategist Marit Stiles said she saw the turnover to the Liberals less as a rejection of the New Democrats than as a testament to a star candidate.

"It's been a long-held NDP riding, certainly. Olivia Chow had it for years. But previously it was a Liberal riding," Stiles said. "We had a very high name-recognition candidate in the Liberals with Adam Vaughan, and Joe Cressy was a very exciting new candidate, but a new candidate. I think it would have been difficult to hold that seat with somebody with that kind of name recognition."

'Shot in the arm'

Although the two Alberta ridings of Fort McMurray-Athabasca and Macleod were perceived as virtual locks for the Conservatives, political strategists were looking closely at vote percentages to for any sign of momentum by the Liberals.

Trudeau campaigned three times in the oilsands heartland to back Liberal candidate Kyle Harrietha in Fort McMurray-Athabasca.

The Conservatives won by healthy margins in Alberta in 2011, capturing 72 per cent in Fort McMurray-Athabasca and 77 per cent in Macleod. Initial numbers from Elections Canada showed a much closer race this time in Fort McMurray, with Yurgida besting Liberal candidate Kyle Harrietha by roughly 12 percentage points. 

Pollster Nik Nanos, chairman of Nanos Research, said earlier a drop in support could spell trouble for the Conservatives.

Conservative candidate John Barlow celebrates his victory in the federal by-election in the Macleod riding in High River, Alta., Monday, June 30, 2014. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)

"It would suggest a significant proportion are not happy and want to send a message to Harper," Nanos told CBC's Power & Politics host Rosemary Barton. If the ballot results don't show a significant vote split, Nanos added, "the Conservatives have to be nervous."

In the southern part of the province, former newspaper editor Barlow captured about 69 per cent of the vote — more than 50 points ahead of his nearest competitor, Liberal Dustin Fuller.

"This is the culmination of eight months of hard work and it definitely feels worthwhile today," Barlow said in a victory speech that came just 30 minutes after the polls closed.

"What this really came down to was passion and how hard we worked. The message we had is Macleod is not going to be forgotten. We cannot take Macleod for granted."​

Still, even in Macleod, the Tory vote share was down about 10 points from 2011 while the Liberal share almost quadrupled.

Low turnout blamed on bad timing

Voter turnout was very low, according to Elections Canada projections, making it difficult to draw valid conclusions from the data. Turnout was below 15 per cent in Fort McMurray-Athabasca, and about 18 per cent in Macleod. Scarborough-Agincourt had only about 27 per cent of registered voters show at the polls, and Trinity-Spadina only had a 21 per cent voter turnout.

The 49-year-old Scarborough-Agincourt MP posted on his website Wednesday that he intends to maintain a modified work schedule while undergoing cancer treatment and is confident he can beat the disease. (Chantal Da Silva-CBC/Radio Canada)

The byelections fell between a weekend and the Canada Day holiday. Some political observers accused the Harper Conservatives of choosing the date in order to engineer a low voter turnout.

Barry Kay, a political science professor with Wilfrid Laurier University, said turnout in byelections is typically 10 to 15 points lower than the turnout in a general election. He said that governing parties tend to suffer more losses in byelections as voters use the occasion to show their dismay at the polls without having to worry about changing the seat of power.

Vaughan's victory in Trinity-Spadina is a coup for the Liberals, who are keen to sell themselves as a reinvigorated party under Trudeau's stewardship. Public opinion surveys show more Canadians giving popular support to the Liberals than the Conservatives, followed by the New Democrats in third place.

Since 1972, every time the Liberals won Trinity-Spadina they have gone on to form government; every time the NDP took the riding, the Conservatives have taken power.

Marcel Wieder, a Liberal strategist and CEO of Aurora Strategy Group in Toronto, called the Vaughan win "the shot in the arm" that Trudeau's party needed, especially coming up to an election year.

The momentum could help the Liberals in their quest to reestablish themselves as the most viable alternative to the Conservatives. 

"If I was Justin Trudeau, I would be feeling great this evening. If I was [federal NDP Leader] Tom Mulcair, I'd be heading back to the drawing board," Wieder said.

With files from The Canadian Press