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Sask. Party scores historic win in Athabasca
The NDP had dominated this seat for for nearly half a century
Well, no one saw THAT coming.
The results of yesterday’s byelection in the northern Saskatchewan riding of Athabasca weren’t supposed to be very dramatic. The Saskatchewan NDP has held the seat with only one brief interruption since it was first created in 1975. Not since 1995 have the New Democrats failed to capture at least 56% of the vote in Athabasca, while the Saskatchewan Party has never cleared 40%.
Until now, that is.
In a shocking upset, the Sask. Party’s Jim Lemaigre captured 51.8% of the vote, with the NDP’s Georgina Jolibois finishing second with 40.7%. Darwin Roy, an Independent candidate, took 7% of ballots cast while Clint Arnason of the Buffalo Party barely registered at 0.5%.
(Note: the vote share results on the Elections Saskatchewan website do not exclude rejected ballots from the total, which I have done in my calculations here.)
The Sask. Party saw its share of the vote increase by just over 15 percentage points compared to its 2020 result, which was already its best up to that date. The NDP’s vote fell by 16 points to its lowest since 1995, which had previously been its only defeat.
The polling benchmark above represents a uniform swing of the most recent poll in Saskatchewan (conducted by the Angus Reid Institute) applied to Athabasca — with the Saskatchewan NDP doing better in the provincewide polls since 2020, we might have expected the party to out-perform its 2020 result in Athabasca. No dice.
Roy, who had failed to secure the NDP’s nomination, might have sapped some of the New Democrats’ strength. But with Lemaigre clearing the 50% mark, Jolibois still would have lost had she gotten every one of Roy’s votes.
We definitely did not see this coming when I spoke with Adam Hunter in last week’s episode of The Writ Podcast, though Adam was wise enough to not make any predictions.
Granted, turnout was pretty low in Athabasca at only 24% of registered voters (it was 33.6% in 2020), for 2,228 ballots cast in all. That will tick up a teeny bit higher once the mail ballots are counted, but Elections Saskatchewan only received 40 requests for mail kits, so it won’t make much of a difference — or change Lemaigre’s victory. There are still some other ballots that could be left to count, such as “in‑person absentee ballots cast at returning office, Hospital, Remand and Temporarily Displaced Voters ballots, and Extraordinary Voting ballots”, but these will likely only have a marginal impact when all is counted later this month.
Big win for Scott Moe
Coming only days after Premier Scott Moe announced a lifting of COVID-19 restrictions in Saskatchewan, this is a big win for his Sask. Party, which has never won either of the two northern seats of Athabasca and Cumberland.
Low turnout can’t be (entirely) credited for Lemaigre’s victory. The Sask. Party only earned 1,112 in 2020’s general election. Yesterday, they tallied 1,146. So, they actually gained raw votes in a byelection, which is quite a feat.
The Sask. Party’s previous best in Athabasca was 36.5% in 2020, so Lemaigre has smashed that record. He’s also beaten the record for the combined scores of the Liberals and Progressive Conservatives, the two parties that immolated themselves to create the Sask. Party in the 1990s. Those two parties never captured more than 50% of the vote in Athabasca.
It is just a tremendously surprising upset for the Sask. Party, which appeared to be struggling in the polls (at least a little, they still dominate) and has never performed well in northern, predominantly Indigenous ridings. Undoubtedly, it helped that Lemaigre himself is Indigenous. But it is a big win at a time when Moe was getting some criticism not only in Saskatchewan but outside of the province for his decision to lift restrictions and tie that move to the “Freedom Convoy” protests.
Catastrophe for the NDP
A huge upset for one party is a huge disaster for another. The Saskatchewan New Democrats only held 12 seats in the 61-seat legislature after the resignation of longtime NDP MLA Buckley Belanger last year. Athabasca and Cumberland are supposed to be gimmies for the NDP, and Jolibois was a good candidate. She held the federal seat in northern Saskatchewan for the NDP from 2015 to 2019 and was the mayor of La Loche, the biggest urban centre in the riding.
Instead, the NDP puts up its fourth-worst performance in Athabasca in 14 electoral contests. Since 2003, the NDP has averaged 63% support in this riding. Yesterday, their raw vote total fell from 1,730 to just 900. That’s a lot of voters who just stayed home — perhaps taking an NDP victory for granted.
If that’s the case, it was a serious miscalculation and it won’t help the leadership of Ryan Meili, whose support was already lukewarm within the party. He got just 72% support in a leadership review last fall.
Embarrassing result for the Buffalo Party
No one was expecting much from the Buffalo Party in this election — a populist party advocating for the separation of Saskatchewan from Canada was unlikely to do very well in a majority-Indigenous riding. But the Buffalo Party did earn 4-5% in two ridings just south of Athabasca where they did run candidates in 2020, and averaged around 9% provincewide where they did have a name on a ballot.
Suffice to say, a vote share of 0.5% (for a total of a dozen votes) is quite poor, and will not strike fear in the hearts of Sask. Party MLAs who might have worried about losing some of their base to the right.
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A first post-Omicron test
It’s never a good idea to draw broad, sweeping conclusions from byelections. We have to recognize that turnout was low, that the profile of the candidates would have been very important and that there is a lot that makes a northern riding with a majority Indigenous population very different from most other ridings in Saskatchewan (and across the country).
But this was the first electoral test of any government as we come down from the peak of the Omicron wave. At the very least, we can say that this wave — and Moe’s recent dropping of restrictions — did not hurt the incumbent government’s chances. That it produced a first-ever victory is nothing to dismiss.