Are any departing incumbents putting their seats at risk?

Catherine McKenna is the latest MP to decide not to run for re-election

The Canadian Press reported yesterday that Catherine McKenna, the MP for Ottawa Centre and Minister for Infrastructure and Communities, has decided not to run in the next election.

Perhaps better known for her time as the Minister for Environment and Climate Change, McKenna was one of the more visible ministers in Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government, particularly during the Liberals’ first term in office. She was also, sadly, the frequent target of awful misogynist attacks on social media.

The Canadian Press report speculated on the potential for former Bank of Canada governor Mark Carney to run for the Liberal nomination in her place. Carney has recently nailed his colours to the Liberal mast, but we’ve been talking about the imminent arrival of Mark Carney for the better part of a decade. I’ll believe it when I see it.

McKenna is now the 20th MP, and eighth Liberal, to announce she won’t be running for re-election.

But that doesn’t mean that 20 seats have suddenly come up for grabs.

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McKenna was first elected in 2015, defeating the late Paul Dewar. A New Democrat, Dewar was a well-liked MP in the riding with some family pedigree in Ottawa politics (his mother was mayor). It was a bit of a surprise to see McKenna defeat Dewar, but it wasn’t much of a surprise when she was re-elected in 2019 by a margin of 19.6 percentage points over the NDP’s Emilie Taman.

The Ontario New Democrats did win Ottawa Centre in the 2018 provincial election, but that was more of a product of the dynamics of that particular campaign than a swing to the left in a riding that Parliament (and me) calls home. In an environment where the federal Liberals are at least as popular as they were in 2019, it seems unlikely that Ottawa Centre is in any danger for the Liberals, with or without Mark Carney.

But let’s take a look at some of the other seats that will not have incumbent candidates on the ballot, ranked by margin of victory in 2019:

Ottawa Centre ranks pretty low on this list. In fact, most of the ridings that will be vacated by their MPs were decided by 10 points or more. Many of them will not swing simply because of the retirement of an incumbent.

In federal elections, incumbents are simply not worth that much — perhaps five percentage points, if that. Most Canadians base their vote on the party leader or party brand, not the local candidate. That’s not always the case everywhere (*cough* Atlantic Canada *cough*), but it is the case in most places.

A few of the ridings on this list, however, are looking more interesting because they will lack an incumbent.

Miramichi–Grand Lake in New Brunswick was only decided by 1.1 points and will be hotly contested in the next election. Lisa Harris, a former provincial cabinet minister and sitting Liberal MLA, is running for the federal Liberal nomination. If she wins it, her Conservative opponent will be Jake Stewart, another former provincial cabinet minister and sitting Progressive Conservative MLA.

The name on the ballot matters in Atlantic Canada, so a Harris v. Stewart match-up will be one to watch.

Speaking of Atlantic Canada, let’s go down the list a bit to Jack Harris and Wayne Easter.

The NDP’s Harris won St. John’s East by a comfortable margin of 13.7 points in 2019, winning back the seat he lost to Nick Whalen of the Liberals in 2015. The three-term MP, and former leader of Newfoundland and Labrador’s NDP, will leave a big hole for the New Democrats to try to fill. It is hard to imagine the NDP can hold their only seat in Atlantic Canada without Harris on the ballot.

Easter in Malpeque is another interesting case. He’s held the P.E.I. seat since 1993 and won it by 14.9 points over the Greens in 2019. Normally, you’d expect it to be a lock for whoever replaces him (and Heath MacDonald, a former Liberal provincial cabinet minister, is hoping to do just that).

(Correction: I originally wrote that Easter first won Malpeque in 1997. He actually won it in 1993, which I now realize I knew. In my defense, the parliamentary website is missing his 1993 win.)

But the Greens will be targeting a seat like Malpeque. That’s where P.E.I. Green Leader Peter Bevan-Baker has his provincial seat. But, based on the recent turmoil within the federal Green Party of late, I’m not feeling particularly bullish on their chances. It would have been an upset for the Greens to win Malpeque in the best of circumstances, and these aren’t the best of circumstances for the Greens.

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Back to the top of the list, Trois-Rivières was a tight three-way race in 2019 won by Louise Charbonneau of the Bloc Québécois by a margin of just 2.4 points over the Liberals. The Conservatives finished just a little further behind in third.

As a one-term MP who came up the middle in a three-cornered contest, Charbonneau’s departure probably doesn’t have too much of an impact. Yves Lévesque, the long-time mayor of Trois-Rivières, is supposed to be the Conservative candidate once again, so he might be able to retain the support he got in 2019 in a riding that would otherwise have not been very promising for the Conservatives. If he can add a few of the Bloc’s votes to his tally, he could win it.

The only other seats with close margins that could be impacted by the departure of their incumbent two ridings located at the head of Lake Ontario: Flamborough–Glanbrook and Hamilton Mountain. The Liberals finished second in both of those ridings — and they are two of the 6% ridings I talked about last week.

Mumilaaq Qaqqaq’s 10-point margin of victory in Nunavut was smaller than it looks because of the small number of voters in the territory, so her decision not to run again does make this riding unpredictable (as is usually the case; that the NDP won it in 2019 was a bit of a surprise).

Liberals missing the most, NDP losing the most

So, it doesn’t look like departing MPs will be a big story line in the next election. Twenty MPs represent just 5.9% of the seats in the House of Commons. The number of MPs who decide not to run for re-election is usually around double that in any given election.

The Liberals will be missing the most incumbent candidates at 11, if we include Yasmin Ratansi, Marwan Tabbara and Ramesh Sangha, who are all now sitting as Independent MPs and almost certainly will not be on the ballot as Liberal candidates again. Those 11 represent 7% of the Liberal caucus elected in 2019.

The Conservatives are not far behind with eight missing incumbent candidates (including former Conservative leadership contestant Derek Sloan, who was ejected from the caucus earlier this year), representing 6.6% of their 2019 caucus. The Bloc is missing just two, but for them that represents 6.3% of their 2019 caucus.

The Liberals, Conservatives and Bloc, in other words, are all missing about the same number of incumbents and should be equally impacted.

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The New Democrats have lost only three, but with just 24 MPs that represents 12.5% of their caucus. That does hurt the party, as the NDP is more reliant on the power of incumbency than other parties. Their chances of forming government are always slim, meaning their pitch is to vote for the local MP you know and can trust to fight for your interests, even if they won’t sit on the government benches. It’s a harder pitch when a known and trusted incumbent isn’t on the ballot.

It wouldn’t surprise me if the New Democrats lose St. John’s East, Hamilton Mountain and Nunavut because of their lack of incumbent, even if they make seat gains elsewhere in the country. The Liberals and Conservatives, at least with this list, look less vulnerable.

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