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Saskatchewan Summer Scramble
Not paying attention to politics in August? That's the idea
It’s hard to think of a more auspicious start to a new election blog than the privilege of covering three Saskatchewan by-elections. As for me, well, Saskatchewan is a small province, so I have to admit that I’m heavily involved in its partisan life. But the chance to bring our local politics to a national audience is rare enough that I trust forgiveness will be granted in time.
A fast recap: The once-mighty Saskatchewan NDP hasn’t won an election in 20 years. Under Brad Wall, the ascendant Saskatchewan Party managed two consecutive decapitation strikes, preventing the opposition NDP from even seating a leader. Wall retired in 2017, and the losing streak of NDP leaders broke in the Covid election of 2020. But impressively low Covid infection numbers in late October burnished Scott Moe’s young premiership, and the NDP’s seat count of 13 (out of 61) still disappointed. A year later, a by-election fumble in Athabasca - a thought-to-be-safe NDP seat in the province’s isolated north - forced Ryan Meili, too, out of the leadership.
Latest to carry the torch is Carla Beck, former social worker and sitting MLA (representing Regina Lakeview, an off-downtown district containing the Saskatchewan Legislature). A few months later, the NDP pulled an impressive 58% while defending swingy Saskatoon Meewasin, Meili’s former seat. The party is now contesting three simultaneous by-elections after walking out of an all-time-best result in a marginal urban riding.
So, does Scott Moe have anything to be worried about?
The Sask Party’s three vacancies kicked off in Regina Coronation Park, where Mark Docherty resigned last February. As a former social worker, Docherty was considered to be part of the Sask Party’s ever-shrinking Liberal appendix, a good fit for a diverse and competitive riding. Lumsden-Morse saw longtime incumbent Lyle Stewart retire in March, possibly related to negative media attention around his friendship with the notorious Colin Thatcher, former MLA and convicted wife-killer. Finally, a tragic and untimely death vacated Regina Walsh Acres in the same month, with incumbent Derek Meyers succumbing to cancer at the very young age of 45.
The mid-August timing of all three by-elections says a lot: The government is expecting bad news, and would prefer to rip off the band-aid while the entire province is at the lake.
Docherty won Regina Coronation Park by less than 5 points in 2016 and 2020, and this lower-income, immigrant-heavy part of the city was always challenging territory for the mainstream Sask Party.
Regina Walsh Acres, meanwhile, was the site of a major spoiler in 2020, with a former NDP MLA scoring 12% in an independent campaign. This complicating factor for the NDP will not be repeated in 2023.
Even a small over-performance would deliver both Regina seats to the NDP, much less the 16-point improvement seen in the Saskatoon Meewasin by-election last September. (Docherty, not feeling very co-operative with his former party, openly denounced the direction of the Sask Party in a July podcast interview.)
Should Moe pay more attention to Regina? He might be more interested in Alberta, where recent conservative infighting has been burning through 90 years of political good favour - a record even more impressive than the NDP’s longtime advantage in Saskatchewan. Losing a couple seats to the NDP would be a setback, but a rupture on the Sask Party’s right flank could be existentially threatening. To wit: Floor-crosser Nadine Wilson’s Saskatchewan United Party (SUP) could potentially become a long-lasting headache for the Sask Party if she retains her seat of Saskatchewan Rivers in next year’s general election.
One little note to follow that up: Despite what the latest public polling says, the SUP is the province’s most credible third party, recently financing a mail-out to every Saskatchewan address. That’s not a guaranteed sign of electoral support to come, but it’s certainly a stronger showing than the directionless Progressive Conservatives, whose greatest strength is being mistaken for their popular federal counterpart in phone surveys. Why they retain the “Progressive” branding, I really have no idea.
The NDP, for its part, shouldn’t count on a strong spoiler effect. Recent history shows that the fringe Buffalo Party has tended to flop in the marginal suburban territory where the two-party race is tightest, and although these by-elections will be a crucial test of the SUP’s strength, the party won’t even be found on the ballot in either Regina seat. Whether this is due to unilateral co-operation or just organizational weakness, it’s a sign that Beck is not likely to form an accidental government.
Moe’s consolation will most likely be Lumsden-Morse, a sprawling rural seat last won in 2020 by 73% vs. the NDP’s 18%. While Alberta has seen many a UCP nomination race contested by a newer generation of troublesome super-ideological weirdos [citation not needed], Sask Party nominee Blaine McLeod is a silver-haired dairyman with a long volunteer resume whose exact age is strangely difficult to verify on the Internet. (All sources agree that he’s operated the farm for 42 years, a good sign that his early ideological development didn’t happen online.)
What to look for on Thursday? Two flips, and Moe will change the channel, heartily congratulating McLeod on how much he’ll renew and invigorate caucus. The SUP will be looking to displace the NDP as the second party in Lumsden-Morse, a task made more difficult by that riding’s growing population of affluent Regina commuters. And the NDP has a running narrative about momentum under its new leader, which absolutely cannot be flubbed if 2024 is meant to be a break with the party’s rough last two decades.
The losers, whoever they may be, can take solace in one thing: No normal prairie person is going to let politics get in the way of enjoying a summer season that’s so very, very short.