The Harper Conservatives reclaimed a byelection seat Monday in the Ontario riding of Durham, but it was the closely watched — and hotly contested — race in Calgary Centre that likely had them biting their nails.
Erin O’Toole — a former air force pilot and navy captain turned corporate lawyer — made it a quick night in Durham, a safe Conservative seat, leaving the second-place New Democrat challenger well in his wake.
A cheer went up from Durham supporters when O’Toole hit 50 per cent of the popular vote, leaving NDP candidate Larry O’Connor with 26.8 per cent — an improvement for the party over 2011, but still far from enough.
“That’s what you need,” one O’Toole supporter enthused as his candidate broke the magical 50 per cent barrier.
The seat was vacated when former cabinet minister Bev Oda resigned following a series of spending and expense controversies that tarnished the Conservative brand as tight-fisted managers.
In Victoria, a seemingly solid NDP seat, New Democrat candidate Murray Rankin was in a tough early battle with Donald Galloway of the Greens, with both getting support in the mid to high 30s in early counting.
But it was Calgary Centre, the riding next door to that of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, that attracted all the attention as establishment candidate Joan Crockatt ran neck-and-neck with Liberal challenger Harvey Locke.
Crockatt had a lead of less than 300 votes after 135 of 263 polls reported, leading with 35.4 per cent of the popular vote to Locke’s 32.9. Green party candidate Chris Turner was third with about 25 per cent of the vote.
“It’s going to be a long night,” said one Conservative supporter watching the returns at Crockatt’s headquarters. “It’s going to be close.”
Running in a bedrock small-c conservative seat, Crockatt ran a safe, low-key campaign, that had the Liberal and Green contenders nipping at her Conservative heels.
Byelections tend to be hard on sitting governments, but Calgary Centre wasn’t supposed to be a problem for the Harper Conservatives.
The riding hadn’t seen a three-way race since Reformers and Progressive Conservatives were fighting for the right to roast a Liberal in the early 1990s. In fact, the combined vote for right-of-centre parties in Calgary Centre has not been below 50 per cent since 1972.
But Crockatt’s vocal support for the upstart Wildrose party in the last Alberta election appeared to divide the local conservative base, with some openly defecting to support Locke.
Turner also ran a strong campaign that may have been aided in the final stretch by Liberal gaffes elsewhere.
First, Liberal MP David McGuinty was quoted calling Alberta MPs “shills” for the oil industry and suggesting they “go home” and run for town council if they want to be so parochial.
Then a November 2010, French-language interview by Justin Trudeau, the Liberal leadership heir apparent, surfaced in which he stated that “Canada isn’t doing well right now because it’s Albertans who control our community and socio-democratic agenda.”
Trudeau apologized but not before federal Conservatives had a field day, stalling Liberal momentum in Calgary Centre and making the Green option — and a welcome Liberal-Green vote split for Crockatt — more viable.
It all served to make a routine byelection electric.
Voting was described as steady, with some polling stations reporting lineups when the doors opened in the morning.
The byelection was noted at the Calgary court martial of Maj. Darryl Watts, where the military judge shut down the testimony 90 minutes early to ensure that those involved in the proceedings had time to vote.
The seat was made vacant when veteran MP Lee Richardson resigned to take a post as chief of staff to Alberta Premier Alison Redford.
Martha Hall Findlay, another Liberal leadership hopeful who, like Trudeau, spent time in the riding during the byelection, said Monday that perceptions of Calgary’s political uniformity are changing.
“I’ve been involved with Calgary long enough to know it’s not something that’s all of a sudden changed,” she said. “I think what has changed is that there is a sense that maybe there’s an opportunity for a representation that actually reflects who Calgarians are.”
Crockatt didn’t do herself any favours when, in a September newspaper interview, she cast ahead to life in Ottawa.
“If I’m a backbench MP, I’m just fine doing that,” Crockatt told the Globe and Mail. “To me, the job is to support the prime minister in whatever way that he thinks.”
In Victoria, a safe NDP seat turned into an acrimonious brawl over a controversial $700-million sewage treatment plan. New Democrat Murray Rankin was the lone candidate supporting the locally unpopular plan, which will raise property taxes.
The House of Commons standings prior to Monday’s byelections had the Conservatives safely in majority territory with 163 of a possible 308 seats. The NDP was next at 100 seats, followed by the Liberals at 35.
The Bloc Quebecois has four seats, while three others are held individually by Elizabeth May of the Green party, Conservative Independent Peter Goldring and Independent Bruce Hyer.