John Horgan easily won re-election as Canada’s only NDP premier on Saturday, but you could make an argument the real winner was someone not even on the ballot.
Dr. Bonnie Henry, the province’s medical health officer, has become a trusted and reassuring voice during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Her performance during the crisis — including coining her own catchphrase, “Be kind, be calm, be safe” — has made her the most popular public figure in the province.
Horgan was smart enough to realize that at the start of the pandemic, letting Henry take the lead at daily media briefings, and only occasionally popping up to bask in her glow.
Though Henry is an independent officer of the B.C. legislature — and not an elected politician — voters still appeared to reward the ruling New Democrats for her leadership, handing Horgan’s ruling NDP a huge majority-government victory.
The win by the New Democrats was decisive, as the party captured legislative seats once considered the perpetual domain of the vanquished B.C. Liberals.
But in this unique mid-pandemic election, traditional norms were shunted aside.
Voters in British Columbia clearly had no interest in changing direction in the middle of the crisis, making Horgan’s winning snap-election gamble look like a political masterstroke.
In retrospect, however, maybe it wasn’t much of a gamble at all.
Horgan knew he would be criticized for calling an election with COVID-19 cases on the rise, especially when he had to break both his own scheduled-election law and the terms of a power-sharing agreement with the third-place Green Party to do it.
The electoral law said the next election was supposed to be held in October 2021. And the deal with the Greens said Horgan would not force an early trip to the polls before that date.
Horgan signed that governing agreement with the Greens three years ago after the two parties teamed up to topple Christy Clark’s previous Liberal government.
The Greens were furious when Horgan stabbed them in the back. The Liberals piled on, questioning Horgan’s trustworthiness and character.
Horgan took his lumps, and then executed a disciplined, mistake-free election campaign that worked like a charm.
He cleverly targeted swing ridings, like promising a new hospital and rapid-transit line in suburban Surrey, stealing key seats from the Liberals there.
And when Liberal leader Andrew Wilkinson tried to flip the script by promising to scrap the provincial sales tax for a year, Horgan one-upped him by promising free money — $1,000 per family in a COVID-19 “relief benefit” sent directly to voters’ bank accounts by direct deposit.
Horgan had other advantages going for him, too.
He called the snap election just six days after the Greens selected a new leader, Sonia Furstenau, denying her a chance to make an impression with voters.
And he knew Wilkinson was suffering from a charisma deficit, reducing the chance that the brainy-but-cold Liberal leader might get on a campaign-trail roll.
While the NDP’s plan went off with barely a hitch, the Liberals committed a series of gaffes and unforced errors, including a candidate who compared birth control to “eugenics” and a leaked, cringe-worthy video showing Liberal MLAs laughing at sexist taunts directed at an NDP candidate.
It all added up to the historic NDP victory, and an ignominious defeat for Wilkinson, who announced his resignation as Liberal leader.
As the dust settles — and the province gets back to battling those still-surging COVID numbers — political insiders are analyzing exactly what happened.
What they see is a trend emerging across Canada: a distinct advantage for incumbent governments seeking re-election during the pandemic.
Horgan’s re-election followed another provincial incumbent victory in New Brunswick, where the ruling Progressive Conservatives were returned to power.
And in Saskatchewan, Premier Scott Moe’s governing Saskatchewan Party was on Monday reelected with a majority government.
Can any of this be lost on Justin Trudeau? The Liberal prime minister seems to have an itchy election trigger finger of his own.
The pandemic seems to have put Canadians in a mood to re-elect governments. Voters, it seems, are seeking stability as the COVID crisis drags on.
After seeing repeat incumbent wins across the country, Trudeau is likely making election plans of his own. I suspect that by the spring of 2021 — at the latest — Trudeau will have found a way to force a federal election, hoping the incumbent winning streak continues.
Mike Smyth is host of ‘The Mike Smyth Show’ on Global News Radio 980 CKNW in Vancouver and a commentator for Global News. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at @MikeSmythNews.