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Tories poised for win in Newfoundland's evolving election race

Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Kathy Dunderdale speaks reporters in St.John's on March 21, 2011.


With three women vying for the job of premier of Newfoundland and Labrador, the province's October 11 election was to be historic no matter what the outcome.

But after the resignation of Yvonne Jones as leader of the Newfoundland and Labrador Liberal Party, this fall's election -- the result of which would have been a foregone conclusion without Danny Williams' unexpected resignation -- could be the most unpredictable of the five provincial campaigns scheduled to take place before the end of this year.

Governments in Newfoundland and Labrador tend to remain in power for a long time. At eight years, the current Progressive Conservative government has been the shortest since Newfoundland became a province in 1949.

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The first provincial government under Joey Smallwood ruled the Rock until 1972, when it was replaced by the Tories who went on to win five consecutive re-elections.

The Liberals returned to power in St. John's in 1989 until they were defeated by Mr. Williams in 2003. As she is merely asking for a third mandate for her party when every other received at least four, Kathy Dunderdale has history on her side.

The Newfoundland and Labrador PCs have maintained strong levels of support for most of their history in the province, not having dropped below 38 per cent support in 45 years, with 2007's election being the party's best, both in terms of their proportion of seats in the House of Assembly and their share of the popular vote.

The Tories have traditionally been strongest in and especially around St. John's, the provincial capital. They have also had success in eastern Newfoundland and the Avalon Peninsula, but with Mr. Williams' 2007 near-sweep the party is also well-placed in the central, southern, and western parts of the island.

Ms. Dunderdale, a former deputy premier and cabinet minister hand-picked by Mr. Williams, has been leader of the party since December 2010 and was first elected to the House of Assembly in 2003.

With a 71 per cent satisfaction rating in Corporate Research Associates' most recent poll, her personal numbers are good. But Mr. Williams stood at 90 per cent just before his departure.

Ms. Dunderdale's main challenge will come from the provincial Liberal Party, which has governed Newfoundland and Labrador for most of the province's history. The Liberals dominated under Mr. Smallwood for the first two decades after confederation, but were handed their worst electoral defeat in 2007.

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The Liberal base is located in Labrador and in western and southern Newfoundland, but the party has also been competitive in the Avalon Peninsula and in the central part of the island, and in the past has had some electoral successes in the capital.

Yvonne Jones took over the leadership of the party on an interim basis after Gerry Reid's resignation following the disastrous 2007 election, and was formalized as leader earlier this year. However, her fight with breast cancer has forced her to resign, and the new leader of the Liberals will have little time to prepare for what will prove to be a difficult campaign.

The third leader is Lorraine Michael, who has led the New Democratic Party since May 2006 after replacing Jack Harris, now an NDP MP in Ottawa.

The New Democrats have never been a significant player in Newfoundland and Labrador politics, having never won more than two seats in any general election. They have reached double-digits in their share of the popular vote only once, in 1985, and have generally garnered between five and eight per cent support in elections since then.

The New Democrats, who have only rarely run a full slate of candidates, are competitive in Labrador and St. John's, the only two parts of the province in which the party has won seats. They are less present elsewhere.

After taking 41 per cent to the Liberals' 50 per cent in the 1999 election, the Tories returned to power in 2003 with 59 per cent support and 34 of the House of Assembly's 48 seats. They improved upon that performance in 2007, taking 70 per cent of the vote and 44 seats, leaving only 22 per cent of the vote to the Liberals and eight per cent to the NDP.

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The PCs made their gains on the backs of the Liberals in every part of the province (except St. John's, where the Liberals held no seats). The New Democrats managed to hold on to their one seat occupied by Lorraine Michael, while only three Liberal incumbents survived the Tory wave.

Support for the Tories reached as high as 81 per cent just outside of St. John's, and was over the two-thirds mark in the provincial capital, the Avalon Peninsula, and in every part of the island except the southern sector, where support was a mere 60 per cent. The one weak spot for the party was in Labrador, but the Tories still took almost half of the vote and three of the region's four seats.

The Liberals dropped everywhere, and had their best results in their traditionally better regions, such as Labrador (35 per cent) and southern (30 per cent) and western (29 per cent) Newfoundland.

The New Democrats took 16 per cent of the vote in Labrador and 19 per cent in St. John's, but were at 10 per cent or lower everywhere else on the island, reaching as low as two per cent in western Newfoundland.

After this historic victory, Mr. Williams' popularity only grew. His party's support ranged between 71 and 82 per cent under his stewardship, not once dropping below the 2007 election's level of support. The Liberals did not do better than 2007's 22 per cent, sticking to the mid- to high teens, well ahead of the NDP who could do little better than nine per cent.

But Mr. Williams' resignation shook up the political landscape in Newfoundland and Labrador. With Ms. Dunderdale at the helm, the PCs still stood at 72 per cent in February but the latest poll from the Corporate Research Associates conducted in May pegged the Tories at only 57 per cent, well below where they have stood for the last four years.

That is still more than enough to hand Ms. Dunderdale a comfortable majority of seats, but is still a significant drop in support.

The Liberals have not taken advantage, as they remained stuck at 22 per cent in the poll. Instead, the New Democrats roared ahead to 20 per cent, more than double any result the NDP had scored since the last election. Whether this poll is an outlier or something real remains to be seen, and the change in leadership in the Liberal Party could also shake things up.

This fall's election will turn on leadership. Mr. Williams was immensely popular in the province and a lot of that has rubbed off on Ms. Dunderdale. But this is Ms. Dunderdale's first campaign as party leader, and how the province reacts to her first electoral test in that role and the performance of the Liberals' new leader could be deciding factors.

The numbers are still very favourable for the PCs, however. Unless the change in leadership galvanizes support for the Liberals, the biggest surprise on election night could come in the form of the Official Opposition.

The Liberals have the inside track as they have a more widespread history of support, but the NDP could win just enough seats to join their federal counterparts as leaders of the opposition if the campaign turns in their favour.

But as long as Ms. Dunderdale does not rock the boat and is not nudged aside by the new face at the helm of the Liberals, she should have no trouble continuing the Tories' comfortable hold on the province.

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