By all accounts, the Regina—Lewvan seat was supposed to be a toss up between NDP candidate Tria Donaldson and Conservative incumbent Warren Steinley.
Historical trends and polling data set the stage for it, but that’s not how election night panned out in the Queen City as hope to breach Saskatchewan’s blue wall was snuffed out and Steinley was declared winner less than two hours after polls closed.
“I was expecting it to be a closer race,” said Jim Farney, director and associate professor at Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy in Regina during an interview Tuesday. “And it wasn’t. So, why might that have been becomes an interesting question.”
Often, voter turnout can be the culprit, said Farney. The lower the turnout, the harder it is to predict a riding. But he said numbers so far show turnout for Regina-Lewvan was relatively normal — a signal that the riding is more likely undergoing a fundamental change.
“To me, the way we’ve got to read it is that it is in fact becoming a more conservative riding,” Farney said. “That this isn’t some sort of vote split fluke or anything like that.”
He pointed to one riding-specific reason the race may not have been as tight as anticipated.
“Local activists” may have been turned off by the way the national party treated former NDP seat holder Erin Weir over harassment allegations, causing a rift in the local party. NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh ousted Weir from the NDP caucus in 2018.
In a larger context, while conservative isn’t quite the right word for an NDP leader, said Farney, the fact that Singh is “less conservative” than former leader Tom Mulcair probably came into play as well.
And, despite Singh’s endorsement of Donaldson, which saw him come to Saskatchewan twice to support her campaign, Farney said Singh’s popularity didn’t have the trickle-down effect the party may have hoped for.
“It was a problem for the NDP right across the board that Singh was more popular than his party was,” Farney said. “And he wasn’t able to translate his own popularity into popularity for the party.”
It’s something a lot of NDP leaders have struggled with over the years, he added, singling out Jack Layton as an example.
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Over in Regina—Wascana, Conservative incumbent Michael Kram proved that his win in 2019 may not have been an isolated incident, but a sign that the “conservative tilt” in the riding kept at bay by former Liberal MP Ralph Goodale has firmly taken hold.
“It’s easy for people in Regina to forget how exceptional Ralph Goodale was,” said Farney. “He was a uniquely talented constituency MP and even when I didn’t live here, people would use him as an example of someone who held his seat despite his party.”
With Goodale gone, the Liberal Party threw its weight behind Sean McEachern, Goodale’s former campaign manager who also worked in Goodale’s constituency office and then his minister’s regional office. But Goodale’s good will clearly wasn’t enough to sway Conservatives back into the red as Kram secured another term.
In Regina—Qu’Appelle, Conservative incumbent and former party leader Andrew Scheer won his seat without much resistance, the final finger securing the Conservative’s strong grip on Regina.
The absence of tight races in Regina begs the question — will the Queen City ever see a non-Conservative seat again?
“Ever is a long time, but I do think Saskatchewan is now, pretty clearly, Canada’s most conservative province and … if it does change will take a generation probably,” said Farney.
If a redrawing of the electoral boundaries resulted in a downtown-Regina-only riding, he said that would do it, but that scenario is “fairly unlikely.”
And if the blue wall is pierced in the future, it’s more likely to bleed orange than red, he added.
“It’s been a very long time since we’ve seen Liberals have a lot of success here,” Farney said. “I have trouble imagining … how to be successful as a Liberal in Regina.”
The Liberals’ downfall? Populism, in part, said Farney, or a lack of it.
“They’re not a populist party. They might have popular leaders, but they very rarely are the party that’s speaking up for the little person against the establishment,” he explained. “They are the establishment party.”
The NDP and Conservatives are both much more populist, Farney said, noting that Saskatchewan has a “big chunk” of voters who are populist and can move between right wing and left wing depending on how appealing populism is.
“So, you could imagine an NDP appeal to a common sense prairie populism that hits at the right time and sees a breakthrough more than, I think, a Liberal one,” said Farney.
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