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Opinion

Must Win Battlegrounds: How New Dems Can Wrest Victory

Here are the Conservatives' most vulnerable ridings across Canada.

By Will McMartin 17 Aug 2015 | TheTyee.ca

Will McMartin, a longtime political consultant and commentator who has been affiliated with the Social Credit and B.C. Conservative parties, is a contributing editor at the Pacific Political Report.

This coverage of Canadian national issues is made possible because of generous financial support from our Tyee Builders. Please consider joining.

Stephen Harper's Conservatives may trail in national polls, but compared to other parties they are rich in "safe" seats. Those are the redrawn electoral districts where they dominated the vote in 2011 (see sidebar) and in many cases, previous elections as well.

This means, to win, New Democrats and Liberal strategists must identify and perform well in "unsafe" seats where Conservatives won by smaller margins.

Presented here is The Tyee's list of those seats. They include the Conservative ridings Mulcair's NDP must win in order to be in a position to govern Canada after Oct. 19.

Lowest hanging fruit

We quickly can dispense with the eight transposed ridings Harper's Conservatives took in 2011 with fewer than two of every five votes counted -- that is, less than 40 per cent.

This is the low-hanging fruit most easily picked off by one of the opposition parties.

Those electoral districts (with the Tories' transposed popular vote and share of the vote from 2011 in brackets) are:

* Scarborough Centre, Ontario (12,841 votes - 34.9 per cent).
* Vancouver Granville, British Columbia (15,440 votes - 35.4 per cent).
* Moncton-Riverview-Dieppe, New Brunswick (16,327 votes - 36.8 per cent).
* London North Centre, Ontario (19,803 votes - 37.1 per cent).
* Avalon, Newfoundland and Labrador (13,214 votes - 37.1 per cent).
* Mississauga-Malton, Ontario (13,715 votes - 37.4 per cent).
* Labrador, Newfoundland and Labrador (4,256 votes - 39.8).
* Lévis-Lotbinière, Quebec (22,469 votes - 39.9 per cent).

Four Conservative incumbents will attempt to defend their precarious position in the House of Commons -- Roxanne James (in Scarborough), Robert Goguen (Moncton), Susan Truppe (London), and Jacques Gourde (Lévis-Lotbinière) -- but they probably are doomed unless their party significantly improves its position in public opinion polls.

Vancouver Granville and Mississauga-Malton are newly created districts with no incumbent, and although Tory candidates have been nominated in both ridings, they face an uphill battle merely in being competitive on Oct. 19.

The last two seats in this under-40 per cent category are in Newfoundland and Labrador, and each is unique.

The riding of Labrador was won narrowly by the Tories in 2011, but re-taken by the Liberals (who captured the district in 19 of the last 21 general elections) in a 2012 byelection. Grit MP Yvonne Jones will have no difficulty being returned to Ottawa.

Finally, Avalon was won four years ago by Liberal Scott Andrews, but electoral redistribution has flipped the advantage to the Conservatives, who enjoy a transposed, 1,394-vote edge over the Grits, and a 3,050 lead on the New Democrats.

Andrews will seek re-election as an independent, after leaving the Liberal caucus in November 2014 following allegations of impropriety by an unidentified female NDP MP. Ken McDonald steps in as the Liberal candidate in Avalon.

Trudeau's party, in range, targeted by Tories

A pattern quickly emerges when looking at these eight aforementioned seats -- and it explains the Conservative Party's near-constant barrage of television ads targeting Trudeau and the Liberals, and virtual silence on Mulcair and the New Democrats.

Simply, it is the Grits who represent the Tories' biggest threat in these at-risk ridings.

In seven of these districts, the transposed results from four years ago show the Liberals a close second behind the Tories, while the New Democrats were runner-up in just one: Lévis-Lotbinière.

Should the Conservative vote shrink by even a small margin on Election Day, the majority of these eight Tory seats should fall to Trudeau's Liberals.

Hence the Conservative strategy of carpet-bombing Trudeau with negative television advertising: it aims to put a ceiling on the Liberal vote-share on Election Day, and thereby protect at-risk Tory ridings.

Next lowest hanging fruit

Airwave attacks on Trudeau may have a better chance of succeeding for the Conservatives in their next tier of slightly less unsafe seats. These would be two dozen transposed seats the Conservatives won in 2011 with between 40 and 45 per cent of the vote.

Again, the Liberals were runners-up in the majority of these ridings, 16, while the New Democrats finished second in just eight.

Let's examine those in which the NDP were bridesmaids. Three are in B.C., with two more apiece in Ontario and Quebec, and one in Nova Scotia.

On the West Coast, those ridings (with the Tories' transposed popular vote and share of the vote from 2011 in brackets) are:

* Burnaby North-Seymour, British Columbia (19,150 votes - 44.2 per cent).
* South Okanagan-West Kootenay, British Columbia (24,846 votes - 44.8 per cent).
* Courtenay-Alberni, British Columbia (25,797 votes - 44.9 per cent).

Only the last district has an incumbent. John Duncan, who has won six previous tilts (and lost one), is shifting to a slightly redrawn seat in the hope of being returned to Ottawa for a seventh time.

To win any of those three seats, NDP challengers must overcome deficits of 4.2 per cent (2,397 votes) to prevail in Courtney-Alberni; 5.4 per cent (2,960 votes) to win in South Okanagan-West Kootenay; and 9.0 per cent (3,931 votes) to take Burnaby North-Seymour.

Their tasks will be immeasurably easier if neither the Liberals nor the Greens enjoy an increase in their vote-shares at NDP expense.

It is an important factor in British Columbia -- if nowhere else in the country -- as Green leader Elizabeth May won her party's sole House of Commons seat in Saanich-Gulf Islands in 2011. The remaining transposed Tory seats won with 40 to 45 per cent, in which the NDP finished second in 2011, are:

* Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario (16,316 votes - 40.4 per cent).
* South Shore-St. Margarets, Nova Scotia (19,709 votes - 42.0 per cent).
* Lac-Saint-Jean, Quebec (22,945 votes - 42.3 per cent).
* Hamilton West-Ancaster-Dundas, Ontario (22,557 votes - 42.4 per cent).
* Bellechasse-Les Etchemins-Levis, Quebec (25,850 votes - 43.9 per cent).

Arguably, the easiest riding for the New Democrats to capture will be the one in Nova Scotia, where Gerald Keddy is retiring after four terms in Ottawa. Another district without an incumbent is the newly created Hamilton West-Ancaster-Dundas district.

The remaining three seats have Conservative MPs defending their turf, including Quebec cabinet ministers Steven Blaney (Public Safety) and Denis Lebel (Infrastructure), and backbencher Bryan Hayes in Sault Ste. Marie.

Will the New Democrats sweep all eight seats? They must do so if Mulcair is to become prime minister.

Again, the Liberals were second in the remaining 16 Tory ridings won in 2011 by less than 45 per cent of the vote. In most of these vulnerable Conservative seats, the New Democrats have a great distance to travel to be competitive.

Three of the 16 may be "in play" for Mulcair -- Kitchener Centre, Don Valley North and Etobicoke-Lakeshore (all in Ontario) -- but success will depend on both the Tories and Grits losing altitude.

Recipe for a fragile Conservative minority

Let us say that Harper's Conservatives lose all 32 redrawn districts they took in 2011 with less than 45 per cent of the vote.

At the same time, each riding is captured by the party that finished second in the last general election. That gives the NDP an extra nine seats, while the Grits add 23.

That would make for new seat totals as follows: the Tories, 156 (188 minus 32); the New Democrats, 118 (109 plus 9); and the Grits, 59 (36 plus 23).

Two observations may be made.

First, under this scenario Harper's Conservatives would be 14 seats short of a majority, but 38 seats ahead of Mulcair's NDP.

Second, the combined number of NDP and Liberal seats would be 177 -- or 21 more than the Conservatives. Together, the two opposition parties could defeat the Tories in the House of Commons, agree to form a coalition -- an option already rejected by Trudeau -- and ask the Governor General to recognize their new government.

Recipe for an NDP government

Given the NDP lead in the national polls, what will it take to win an outright minority victory for the party on Oct. 19? It's not out of the question. Let's continue our analysis of the low-hanging Tory seats most likely to fall in the next general election.

To this point we've looked only at the 32 Tory ridings transposed from 2011 and won with less than 45 per cent of the vote.

There are another 33 Conservative seats taken four years ago with between 45 and 50 per cent of valid votes.

In this category, the NDP and Liberals took 16 apiece, while a disaffected Tory was second in the newly drawn Alberta riding of Sherwood Park-Fort Saskatchewan. (The latter seat almost certainly will remain in Conservative hands.)

Counting all of the 64 transposed seats (excluding Sherwood Park) won in 2011 by the Tories with less than half of the vote, the Liberals were second in 39, and the NDP, in 25.

It now ought to be starkly clear as to why Harper's Conservatives continue to hammer Trudeau, while taking a hands-off approach to Mulcair.

Simply, the Liberals represent a far graver threat to Tory-held seats than do the New Democrats. In the event that Harper's assault against the Liberal leader succeeds in tamping down Grit support, the greater is the likelihood of that the Conservatives will retain seats won by narrow margins four years ago.

The transposed seats also reveal why Mulcair is not joining in attack on Trudeau. Simply, he needs the Liberals to capture Tory-held seats if the New Democrats are to be able to come close to -- or even surpass -- the Conservative numbers in the House of Commons.

A closer look at these Tory-held ridings won with 45 - 50 per cent shows that many will be exceptionally demanding for either the NDP or Grits to take. Not impossible, but very difficult.

Here are the 16 that must be won by the New Democrats if they are to overtake Harper in seat totals.

* North Island-Powell River, British Columbia (23,425 votes - 46.0 per cent).
* Edmonton Centre, Alberta (19,908 votes - 46.2 per cent).
* Port Moody-Coquitlam, British Columbia (20,203 - 46.5 per cent).
* Elmwood-Transcona, Manitoba (16,086 votes - 46.9 per cent)
* Desnethe-Missinippi-Churchill River, Saskatchewan (9,767 votes - 46.9 per cent)
* Kenora, Ontario (11,567 votes - 47.0 per cent).
* Fredericton, New Brunswick (18,213 votes - 47.0 per cent).
* Fleetwood-Port Kells, British Columbia (16,541 votes - 47.8 per cent).
* Delta, British Columbia (21,982 votes - 48.0 per cent)
* Essex, Ontario (24,239 votes - 48.3 per cent).
* Brantford-Brant, Ontario (26,668 votes - 48.4 per cent).
* Simcoe-Grey, Ontario (26,764 votes - 48.4 per cent).
* Saskatoon-University, Saskatchewan (17,067 votes - 48.6 per cent)
* Megantic-L'Erable, Quebec (22,321 votes - 49.1 per cent)
* Peterborough-Kawartha, Ontario (28,435 votes - 49.6 per cent).
* Saint John-Rothesay, New Brunswick (17,881 votes - 49.7 votes)

Of these 16 districts, 11 will be defended by Conservative MPs -- of whom three are cabinet ministers: Kellie Leitch (Labour), Greg Rickford (Natural Resources) and Kerry-Lynne Findlay (National Revenue).

The takeaway

These are the 64 seats the Tories won (excluding Sherwood Park) with less than half of the vote four years ago. The New Democrats finished second in 25 -- and the party simply has to win nearly all of them to have a reasonable chance to form the government once the votes have been tallied.

Should the Tories lose all 25 -- an unlikely, but not impossible proposition -- it would reduce their seat-total to 163 (188 minus 25), while the NDP would have 134 (109 plus 25).

Clearly, even if successful in picking all of the low-hanging Tory seats, Tom Mulcair and the New Democratic Party need Justin Trudeau and his Liberals to do their part in bringing the Tory total down even further.

The numbers favour the re-election to government of Stephen Harper and his Conservatives, but by no means is it a certainty.

Campaigns matter, and no one knows what unforeseen events are waiting to trip up our political leaders over the next nine weeks as they head for a historic showdown on Oct. 19.  [Tyee]

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