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The election outlook for the 14 Saskatchewan seats

John Cairns' News Watch - Only a few battlegrounds at this point
federal election
Here is the cold hard truth about federal elections in Saskatchewan: as they say in Corner Gas, there’s “not a lot going on.”

In this column I am going to focus on what to expect with the 14 Saskatchewan seats that are up for grabs in this federal election.

Now, a lot of media organizations in this province will give you a lot of information about “ridings to watch” and all that, just to drum up excitement in the election.

Here is the cold hard truth about federal elections in Saskatchewan: as they say in Corner Gas, there’s “not a lot going on.”

Here is the stark reality: Saskatchewan is Conservative bedrock. There is very little drama about who is going to win in most of the ridings, and I know such a statement upsets everyone who isn’t a Conservative, but it’s the truth and everyone knows it. Just look at the provincial results as well, where the Saskatchewan Party always blows the NDP out. Saskatchewan is the Conservative bedrock of Canada – maybe even more than Alberta.

Every election since 2004, it’s been 12, 13 or even 14 Saskatchewan MPs for the Conservatives -- the only exception being 2015, when they only won ten seats. About half of the ridings in this province are rural seats that are sure to be absolute blowouts. Another few are in the urban areas where the Conservative incumbents will have to at least make an effort to meet voters and so on, but will still win.

There are only three or four ridings in Saskatchewan where there is a race at the moment, and I will start by looking at those:

Desnethe-Missinippi-Churchill River: Of all the ridings in Saskatchewan, this is the biggest tossup and the one most likely to change hands once the votes are counted. This riding has been held by the Conservatives, Liberals and New Democrats on and off for the past couple of decades, and is especially notorious for throwing incumbents out. Notable incumbents who have lost here over the years included Conservatives Jeremy Harrison and Rob Clarke, as well as New Democrat Georgina Jolibois who lost in 2019 to the current Conservative MP, Gary Vidal.

In this election, Vidal has a target on his back. The longtime former Athabaska MLA Buckley Belanger has quit the provincial New Democrats to run for the federal Liberals, and will bring with him powerful name recognition. Meanwhile the New Democrats are running Harmonie King who was a candidate in the last provincial election.

This riding is distinct from the rest of the province because it is a northern riding with the largest land area of any riding in Saskatchewan. While there are populated areas like Meadow Lake and La Ronge, it also contains many isolated communities that you can only access by plane. It has a heavy Indigenous population, which means Indigenous issues are more important here as well. The bottom line is that issues in this riding tend to be different from the rest of the province, and that usually makes for a very competitive race. Expect the federal leaders to drop by Meadow Lake or La Ronge in the near future.

Saskatoon West: This riding is typically a close race. Back in the days when it was known as Saskatoon-Rosetown-Biggar, Conservative Kelly Block would barely be able to hold off Nettie Wiebe of the NDP. In 2015, under the new boundaries, Sheri Benson of the NDP was able to take the seat, but she was unseated by Brad Redekopp in the 2019 vote by about seven percentage points.

The NDP are running Robert Doucette, former President of the Metis Nation of Saskatchewan. But it should be noted that the NDP had previously selected Jaris Swidrovich as the nominee originally, and he opted to step aside. So organizationally it looks like the NDP have some catching up to do, but this remains a top target for them in the province.

Regina Lewvan: This is another seat the NDP are interested in taking back. This seat was won by Erin Weir in the 2015 election, but then came all the drama involving Weir being kicked out of the federal NDP caucus and so on, and that disarray allowed Conservative Warren Steinley to win the seat in 2019. In this election, the NDP are running CUPE communications representative Tria Donaldson against Steinley, and the word on the street is that the NDP believe they have a good chance here. We’ll see.  

Regina Wascana: This was the most Liberal seat in the province for years, with Ralph Goodale representing the riding since 1993. He survived through some bad elections for the Liberals including the 2011 Michael Ignatieff disaster. But in 2019, local voters made it known they were fed up with Trudeau and threw Goodale out, replacing him with Conservative Michael Kram. This time the Liberals are running Sean McEachern who has experience with the Saskatchewan Urban Municipalities Association. We shall see if the Liberals are able to put up any sort of showing this time, but one has to wonder. A lot of the vote for the Liberals in past elections was due to the fact that the Liberal on the ballot was named Goodale.

There are a number of other urban ridings that look to remain solidly Conservative, such as Regina-Qu’Appelle (Andrew Scheer), Saskatoon-Grasswood (Kevin Waugh), and Saskatoon University (Corey Tochor). But as I have said, these are still ridings where the local Conservative MPs will need to make an effort to show up during the campaign, just to make sure, because the other parties are organized. Just last week I was in Saskatoon and I noticed Claire Card of the NDP already had signs up along 8th Street in Tochor’s riding. Tochor needs to get his signs up.  

That leaves the remaining rural ridings and their Conservative MPs: Battlefords-Lloydminster (Rosemarie Falk),  Cypress Hills-Grassland (Jeremy Patzer), Souris-Moose Mountain (Robert Kitchen), Yorkton Melville (Cathy Wagantall), Carlton Trail-Eagle Creek (Kelly Block), Prince Albert (Randy Hoback), and Moose Jaw-Lake Centre-Lanigan.

In the case of Moose Jaw-Lake Centre-Lanigan, the most interesting happenings of the campaign took place already: Tom Lukiwski announced he was not running again, and there was a competitive nomination won by Fraser Tolmie, mayor of Moose Jaw. Tolmie is now the odds-on favourite to win this seat.

These are ridings that have been held by Conservatives or their predecessors in Reform/Canadian Alliance for years, going back to at least 1997. In 2019, these seats were won by utterly dominant margins of upwards of 70 to 80 percent of the vote.

It seems obvious who is going to win here. Or is it?

It should be noted that these rural seats are being contested this time by the pro-Western Maverick Party, who have made known they are targeting disgruntled Conservative voters. They are exclusively contesting these rural seats, so as to not “split the vote” with Conservatives in these other seats where the Liberals and NDP stand a chance of winning. 

The Mavericks have high hopes of a big showing, and they have active campaigns and a lot of signs up, but whether it can translate into seats remains a big question mark. They have enormous majorities that they have to climb, with upwards of 80 per cent of the vote for Conservatives. There would need to be a massive shift of votes from the Conservatives to the Mavericks in order to win. That's a tall order: the last time something like that happened in this province was 1993, when the Reform Party had its dramatic rise. 

Unless the Mavericks suddenly catch fire and become a real threat to Conservative incumbents before the end of this campaign, at this point we are looking at only about three or four seats being real “battlegrounds.” The most likely NDP pickups: Saskatoon West and Regina Lewvan. The most likely Liberal pickups: Desnethe-Missinippi-Churchill River and -- maybe -- Regina Wascana.

Maybe you really ought to put a “maybe” to all of them. It looks to me like we could likely see another Conservative sweep of 14 MPs for Saskatchewan, again.

Already, Justin Trudeau has been stumbling out of the gate, and Erin O’Toole’s platform seems to be getting attention. Jagmeet Singh’s NDP is proving to be a threat in heavily urban ridings that are big into social and “green” issues. The problem is the NDP’s main policy issues don’t seem to gain any traction in Saskatchewan, election after election. Since 2004, they have had only one election (2015) where they gained any seats in Saskatchewan at all. The rest of the time, they have been shut out completely.

We shall see how the rest of this campaign goes, and whether the parties that are challenging the Conservatives are in any way able to “expand the map” and put any more ridings into play by the time Sept. 20 rolls around.