Election Day in N.L. as Tories aim for third majority, NDP for historic gains

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ST. JOHN'S, N.L. - It's Election Day in Newfoundland and Labrador after a quiet campaign that could have a historic finish.

Polls have suggested Progressive Conservative Leader Kathy Dunderdale is the frontrunner, and if the Tories win the election she will be the first woman elected premier in the province's history.

New Democrats are also hoping to break new electoral ground as they aim for Official Opposition status.

Aside from a few potentially close riding battles, especially as the Tories fend off a surging NDP in the St. John's region, it has been a staid three-week campaign.

"In 2007, the NDP wasn't even a blip on the radar," said Alex Marland, a political scientist at Memorial University in St. John's.

"They were a total fringe party. This time around, it's like the once mighty Liberals have descended into fringe party status."

Repeated polls have suggested a tripling of voter support for the NDP to about 24 per cent compared to fading Liberal popularity.

The Orange Crush wave that smashed Liberal hopes in the May federal election, making the NDP the Official Opposition in Ottawa, has been felt in the province.

Federal NDP MPs Jack Harris and Ryan Cleary won with wide margins in the vote-rich St. John's region. Provincial New Democrats hope to also bask in that orange glow.

The Liberal party, meanwhile, is a shadow of the proud institution whose leaders — Brian Tobin, Clyde Wells and the legendary Joey Smallwood — dominated provincial politics for most of the province's 62 years in Confederation.

The Liberals started this campaign saddled with a $600,000 debt and a last-minute leadership change. Kevin Aylward took over from Yvonne Jones in August when she suddenly stepped down to focus on her recovery from breast cancer.

Aylward, a former provincial Liberal cabinet minister, has campaigned hard on two key messages. He believes rural Newfoundland is being left behind, and that the $6.2 billion Muskrat Falls hydro deal in Labrador is a bad bargain that will raise light bills and pile on provincial debt.

Marland said Muskrat Falls simply hasn't resonated with most voters.

"It's my view that a lot of people still look at this as Danny's deal," he said of Danny Williams, the phenomenally popular former premier who quit politics in December.

"They put a lot of faith into him. It's a lot harder to throw mud at a deal that Danny Williams, as sort of the saint of Newfoundland politics, is defending."

The NDP's Lorraine Michael has promised to redistribute the province's oil wealth as she tries to get more New Democrats elected than ever before. The NDP's previous record for the number of seats it has held in the legislature is two.

Marland said he believes the real test of NDP success will be whether they beat the Liberals in the popular vote. In 2007, New Democrats had just over eight per cent of that support, compared to 22 per cent for the Liberals and a whopping 70 per cent for the Tories.

"The NDP, if they don't form the Official Opposition after this, are going to be disappointed. That's what they're gunning for."

If the Tories win their third straight majority government in Newfoundland and Labrador, they will continue a trend of governing parties winning elections across the country in 2011 at both the federal and provincial levels.

A Conservative win would be Dunderdale’s victory to savour, said Marland.

“If you pick up a few seats, if you lose a few seats, in the end you’re still the premier of the province.

“I think she has a lot more legitimacy after this election than she would have had before.”

Williams hand-picked Dunderdale to take over when he suddenly resigned from politics last December to focus on his business ventures. She was coronated Tory leader with no challengers last spring.

Dunderdale ran a classic frontrunner’s campaign with no major gaffes, Marland said.

“Don’t say very much, don’t rock the boat, just be positive.”

Dunderdale has had to repeatedly defend her decision to appear by Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s side during the federal campaign when he promised to support a loan guarantee or financial equivalent for Muskrat Falls.

She’s still waiting for that fiscal support after the province elected just one Conservative, by a hair’s breadth, in the federal election.

Marland said it’s telling that federal Conservatives have not appeared to hit the hustings with Dunderdale.

“You have a majority Conservative government in Ottawa and you have a potential Progressive Conservative government here in Newfoundland getting re-elected with a majority government. You would think there might be some synergies going on.

“Clearly a calculation has been made that it’s a negative to have federal Conservatives come over here.”

Geographic location: N.L.

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