Canada Election 2019: Parties and Incumbency – Part One: The Liberals and Incumbency

Liberal John Oliver, left, defeated Conservative Terence Young, right, in 2015 – but it’s Young who should be the better candidate as Oliver retires. Why are the Liberals doing well in their open seats?

This is one of our short articles on factors affecting seats in this election. There will be further search articles.

There are obvious places where the lack of an incumbent is going to harm the incumbent party this election. For the Liberals, losing Bill Casey in Cumberland-Colchester makes that seat vulnerable, as Casey was a hugely popular MP whatever affiliation he held. The NDP losing Linda Duncan in Edmonton Strathcona, Irene Mathyssen in London-Fanshawe, and Erin Weir in Regina-Lewvan doesn’t help their chances. The Conservatives should have won South Surrey-White Rock this time, but we rate it as a Tossup with Dianne Watts, the former Mayor of Surrey not being their incumbent – instead former BC Liberal MLA Gordie Hogg, the new incumbent, helps the Liberals here. 

But one trend we’ve noticed is that the Liberals are holding their own in open seats. Whilst Liberal incumbents mig – most of those in competitive seats  We’ve just changed the rating in Oakville to Leans Liberal from Tossup. It was often assumed to win this seat securely, the best candidate the Liberals could hope for was the riding’s former MPP Kevin Flynn, who lost the congruent provincial seat in 2018. Flynn, after repeated urging, did run for the nomination, but lost to Anita Anand, who had been campaigning before Flynn entered the race. Here, the lack of a well-known face, in either Flynn or the retiring MP John Oliver, was assumed to render the Liberals vulnerable. The Conservatives had nominated Terence Young, the MP from 2008-15. In 2015, his defeat was one of the narrower of the class of ‘08 in Ontario. Stephen Woodworth lost heavily in Kitchener Centre, Bob Dechert suffered an only marginally better loss in Mississauga-Erin Mills, and Ed Holder’s local popularity meant little to the race in London West. But Andrew Scheer wanted former incumbents to run again, and the mood of the CPC was one of optimism – most seeing Young as the key to winning here. Naturally given the huge increase, only one former Liberal MP failed to win back their seat last time (and that was because he was an NDP candidate), and Conservative strategists hoped the same would happen.

Young is now a source of external attack for his socially conservative record, and Anand has proven herself to be a candidate who can win the seat for the Liberals. We see this trend in other seats too. In Whitby and Newmarket-Aurora, where the Liberals were expected to be in trouble anyway, the lack of an incumbent has not hampered their prospects. Both are Tossups – that’s not good enough for the Conservatives In our race review of Whitby, we mentioned how the surprise local popularity of Celina Caesar-Chevannes was a boost to the Liberals before, but the party itself is holding up despite her departure. Lois Brown was hoping to retake Newmarket-Aurora for the Conservatives, but the Liberals have taken advantage of the open seat and found a good candidate in Tony Van Bynen. It’s not just in Ontario. Nova Scotia has been characterised – for good reason – as a province where candidacies matter. Bill Casey, Andrew Younger, and Gerald Keddy have all won against the odds, and five out of eleven Liberals retiring. But the Liberals are bucking the trend this time round. Cape Breton-Canso and Sydney-Victoria saw Liberal brands largely based on incumbents Rodger Cuzner and Mark Eyking. These seats were the only two where a majority of all electors voted for one candidate. The Conservatives running MLAs Alfie Macleod and Eddie Orrell here has not been enough. The Liber West Nova is only a tossup by our rating, despite the assumption by the Conservatives that they could take the open seat by running former Nova Scotia Finance Minister Chris d’Entremont. Even in Nova Scotia, running Conservative MLAs in open seats, and with an unpopular provincial government, the Liberals are holding up in those seats, just as much . It is only Cumberland-Colchester where we rate the Liberals as behind. And in West Vancouver, the retirement of a very popular incumbent, former Mayor Pam Goldsmith-Jones, is not an issue – she created a Liberal base that had previously not existed, but polling suggests she’s passed it on. We changed the rating there to Solidly Liberal. There is evidence to suggest that the lack of an incumbent is not a game-changer, despite the Conservatives hoping otherwise. There are of course a few seats where the Liberals are doing a lot better than they might, thanks to a longtime MP, such as in Cardigan (Laurence Macaulay), Yukon (Larry Bagnell), and Kenora (Bob Nault) – but it’s hard to argue the Liberals don’t have a shot in them.

What are the reasons for this trend? It is generally said incumbents can add five to ten percent of the vote. In considering Whitby, Oakville and Newmarket-Aurora, the Liberals are doing well enough in Ontario anyway. Safe seats are safe seats. In some cases, the Liberals are running high-quality candidates, and the lack of an incumbent simply translates to a torch well-passed. This applies in Sydney-Victoria, where Jamie Battiste is a strong candidate. But ultimately, if the five to ten percent the average incumbent adds disappears, in many seats the Liberals are performing well enough that it doesn’t matter. The campaign is already heavily nationalised or regionalised, and candidates are more uniform than before. The Liberal class of 2015 produced few mavericks. Plenty of star candidates, who defeated Conservatives, but few real mavericks who could win a sizeable personal vote in addition to the Liberal vote, not just being popular among Liberal voters. The retirement of an incumbent therefore is not a worry for the Liberals – who have built their own brand, and with candidates not playing to their own incumbency, or reasssuring voters about their new candidacy, but running slightly localised versions of the Liberal campaign – focusing on urban issues in Oakville, and indigenous issues in Nunavut, but still with the same brand behind Justin Trudeau. Because he matters far more than any incumbent, retiring or running, does, just as he did last time.

Next time, we’ll look at the NDP exodus and the effect that could have.


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