OTTAWA – The last federal vote in Saskatchewan might have been a bit of a yawn, but Conservative moves in the province and the redrawing of the electoral map are making 2015 a whole new ballgame.
As with Alberta, there were no changes to the party standings after the 2011 election. Now, up to six Tory MPs might be calling it quits before the writ drops and a major new riding redistribution has everyone revising their calculations.
Already three MPs have said they won’t run again: Maurice Velacott, Ray Boughen and Ed Komarnicki.
Spokespeople for cabinet ministers Gerry Ritz and Lynne Yelich say their bosses intend on running in 2015. But privately Conservatives say question marks remain around the pair’s plans, as well as those of 68-year-old veteran parliamentarian Garry Breitkreuz.
The province has 14 ridings. For now, 13 of them are held by the Conservatives and one by longtime Liberal Ralph Goodale.
Historically, however, the province has been known for its Conservative-NDP battles. The NDP did not win a single seat in the last election – a major setback for the party that was born in Saskatchewan of the 1960s.
Many of the districts, including Ritz’s and Breitkreuz’s, are considered safe Conservative ridings having been won by wide margins in the last election and encompassing large rural areas. Goodale is also considered safe in Regina-Wascana, a riding that has become even more urban with redistribution.
But other areas appear more volatile with redistribution of the population into differently configured ridings. Conservatives fought unsuccessfully to stop changes that did away with hybrid rural-urban ridings.
A new, exclusively urban riding in Saskatoon, called Saskatoon West, has been red-circled by the NDP as a possible gain. University professor and former farm union leader Nettie Wiebe says she will seek the nomination there.
“The Harper government has run in some ways a wayward course, and it’s not going to be nearly as clear-cut now that they’ve shown how a majority government actually works on the ground,” said Wiebe, who has run unsuccessfully three previous times.
Wiebe might wind up facing Randy Donauer, a city councillor who is seeking the Conservative nomination.
Conservative MP Brad Trost notes that the riding contains suburban pockets and certain ethnic communities that tilt towards his party.
“To be very blunt, the Saskatoon West riding favours the NDP, but if we run a good campaign we’re not out of it. It will be competitive,” said Trost, who will run for the nomination in neighbouring Saskatoon-University.
Trost said there remains a strong polarization between urban and suburban voters within city ridings, which makes predictions difficult.
“Even when you just go inside boundaries of Saskatoon or Regina, the Conservatives win seats,” said Trost. “It’s not just the urban-rural split that people have always thought.”
In Regina, redistribution has created the new riding of Regina-Lewvan. Again, the Conservatives will have to field an entirely new candidate. However, a widely-rumoured Liberal candidate – former Regina mayor Pat Fiacco – says he is not seeking the nomination.
“Saskatchewan is not going to be the totally static and predictable place that it has been for the last little while,” said Goodale.
In the northern part of the riding, opposition parties weren’t sad to see more rural, farming areas lopped off. Conservative Rob Clarke beat the New Democrat there in 2011 by 800 votes.
Both Conservatives and the NDP concede that one of the big unknowns is Justin Trudeau. Will the new Liberal leader create more three-way races across the province?
“We have no idea how Trudeaumania 2.0 is going to play out in Saskatchewan,” says former provincial NDP leadership candidate Ryan Meili.
“Will it have an impact, or will we see a continuation of the traditional Conservative-NDP battles? It’s going to be really interesting to watch.”
Wiebe said one can’t declare a split on the left just yet.
“Of course Trudeau will have an impact, but it’s not clear what the effects will be because quite frankly, a lot of erstwhile Saskatchewan Liberals have been voting Conservative, and some have been voting NDP, and it’s very unclear what the percentages there are,” said Wiebe.
“My sense is that it will take a small bite out of each of those and the size of the bite is unknown.”