Few expect big Liberal gains despite strong candidates

Political experts say rural ridings on the Prairies still have a strong Conservative base, with the NDP gaining ground

CALGARY — Kent Hehr zips into a coffee shop in his wheelchair like the man on a mission that he is.

The Liberal candidate in Calgary Centre has been given the job of defeating Conservative incumbent Joan Crockatt and is one of several the party hopes will increase the western Liberal presence in Ottawa.

Hehr was a popular provincial Liberal MLA before moving into federal politics.

“I thought it was important that Calgary have a Liberal in the next Parliament,” he said.

“This has become a very progressive place over the last couple of decades.”

Calgary was solidly Conservative blue after 2011, and the province didn’t send any Liberals to Ottawa.

It was a similar story throughout the West. Saskatchewan and Manitoba each had one Liberal MP and British Columbia had two.

Veteran Regina-Wascana MP Ralph Goodale said the chances of increasing those numbers are good, although he will most certainly remain the only Liberal from Saskatchewan.

“I think there’s growth potential in Western Canada,” he said.

“One thing that (Liberal leader Justin) Trudeau has done very well is his recruitment of candidates.”

He points to Hehr, former Federation of Canadian Municipalities president Karen Leibovici in Edmonton West and a popular alderman, Amarjeet Sohi, in Ed-monton Mill Woods. Projections last week showed Edmonton Centre candidate Randy Boissonnault, an entrepreneur, leading in a seat with no incumbent.

In Calgary, polling results appear strong for former MLA Darshan Kang in Calgary Skyview. Voters there actually have a choice of eight candidates, including an independent, the Democratic Advancement Party, the Marxist-Leninist Party and the Progressive Canadian Party.

Voters in Edmonton Strathcona can also vote for the Rhinoceros Party or the Pirate Party.

In Manitoba, four Liberal candidates were comfortably ahead in the polls with three weeks left. Dan Vandal was leading in St. Boniface-St. Vital, where Conservative Shelley Glover did not seek re-election, while incumbent Kevin Lamoureux is likely to be re-elected in Winnipeg North. The Liberals’ Terry Duguid was ahead in Winnipeg South, also where a Conservative incumbent chose not to run again. And in Winnipeg South Centre, Jim Carr could defeat Conservative Joyce Bateman.

The Liberals were ahead in 10 B.C. ridings as of last week, all of them in urban areas.

University of Calgary political scientist Barry Cooper said the numbers say one thing, but voters might do another.

“I don’t really think that Justin Trudeau is going to have a breakthrough on the Prairies,” he said.

“Many people remember his last name and his father.”

He said Trudeau hasn’t shown much command of foreign or domestic policy and displays a “lack of gravitas” in the way he conducts himself.

Cooper said Hehr in Calgary Centre is the most likely Liberal winner in Alberta, but he won’t make predictions for Edmonton.

At Mount Royal University, Lori Williams said Hehr is well known with a proven track record and is up against a “very conservative candidate in a riding that isn’t particularly conservative.”

Former prime minister Joe Clark, who was known as a red Tory, represented the region at one time.

However, Cooper and Williams don’t expect Liberal gains in rural prairie ridings. The Conservatives still have a strong base in those ridings. As well, they say vote splits between the Liberals and the NDP in urban ridings could still lead to some surprising results election night.

Hehr said this election, following the Alberta provincial shift to the NDP, is allowing people to vote the way they always wanted.

“I get the sense that many progressives in Calgary were forced to join the Conservative Party of Canada (as candidates) because they felt it was the only way to get elected,” he said.

It could be a more competitive landscape for all political parties.”

Hehr predicted that he will win or lose by 200 votes. He also disagrees with Cooper’s assessment that people hear Trudeau and think of Pierre Elliott, Justin’s father and a former prime minister who was unpopular in Western Canada.

“In my view, since this election has started, Justin Trudeau is playing a lot better than he was at the start,” Hehr said. “I don’t get that ‘is Justin ready’ question as much anymore, and we’re a long way from the grievances of the past.”

Goodale also said Trudeau has shown he has his own ideas by talking about resource development and getting exports to market.

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