Analysis: NDP leader Jagmeet Singh to visit Kootenay-Columbia signals competitive race

Almost election eve whistle-stop visit to Kootenay-Columbia riding by NDP leader Jagmeet Singh shows the NDP feels they have a shot in Kootenay-Columbia.

Kootenay-Columbia NDP candidate Wayne Stetski (left) and NDP leader Jagmeet Singh (right) campaign in Nelson in this undated photo. Image: Kootenay-Columbia NDP website image

NDP leader Jagmeet Singh will visit Cranbrook on the evening of Saturday, Sept. 18, the first federal party leader to campaign in Kootenay-Columbia this election. With just two days to the federal election, he’s likely the last.

Singh will campaign with Kootenay-Columbia riding NDP candidate Wayne Stetski at a whistlestop rally at the Canadian Rockies International Airport at Cranbrook on Saturday evening.

In a statement accompanying the announcement, the NDP emphasized it focuses on everyday people not the ultra wealthy.

“We can’t afford another four years of Justin Trudeau’s empty promises – the real cost is adding up for Kootenay families. Billionaires and big corporations made a fortune during the pandemic while everyday people fell behind. New Democrats fight for people because we know better is possible,” said Stetski in a statement announcing the event.

You can read the NDP’s event announcement here.

Analysis: NDP feels Kootenay-Columbia is competitive

A campaign visit from a political party leader in the home stretch shows the party thinks it’s got a shot in the riding.

In Kootenay-Columbia, the race is between incumbent MP Rob Morrison (Conservative) and former MP Wayne Stetski (NDP), who lost the seat to Morrison in 2019.

Since it was created from portions of Kootenay East and Kootenay West in 1997, Stetski’s term as MP from 2015-2019 was the only time the riding hasn’t been held by the right-of-centre party of the day, including Reform, Alliance and Conservative.

In the early 2000s, the NDP emerged as the main opposition party in the conservative-leaning riding. Electoral boundary redistribution in 2012 shook things up a bit. There was a new dynamic as Nelson, Salmo, Kaslo and area were brought in. Other areas, including Nakusp, were redistributed out. Most significantly, it brought new organizers and party activists to the riding organizations.

Stetski’s 2015 federal victory was a 282-vote-difference squeaker over incumbent Conservative MP David Wilks. In that election, Stetski was buoyed by a strong Liberal candidate Don Johnston, who drew Conservative votes to a Liberal platform that included legalizing cannabis.

This election, the Liberals are running the same candidate as 2019, Robin Goldsbury, despite a poor showing at just over 9% last election. It’s challenging to see the Liberals breaking out in Kootenay-Columbia in 2021.

Green Party candidate Rana Nelson seems well prepared to do a good job as MP but is weighed down by the federal party’s recent off-message public infighting and resulting poor polling. In the riding, Green Party supporters have improved their showing each election and are resilient and accustomed to a long, uphill struggle. However, NDP rival Wayne Stetski has picked key environmental and climate change endorsements, such as from 350 Canada.

Conservative MP Rob Morrison won Kootenay-Columbia in 2019 with a comfortable margin, getting 45% to NDP incumbent Stetski’s 34%.

The seat is Morrison’s to defend and he now has the ability to run on his record. His main issue has been advocacy for loosening gun restrictions. A late flip-flop by the Conservatives on the gun issue has Morrison bobbling his banana clips and reassuring his followers in his social feeds that he’ll still come through for those opposed to gun restrictions, despite being thrown under the bus by O’Toole in favour of the suburban soccer parent vote.

What the electorate’s response to his individual performance will be is a harder to quantify. Voters often look to federal leaders, parties, platforms and dialogues when making decisions, and the Conservatives are doing well for a party a snap election was sprung upon. In other words, local candidates don’t matter as much as federal leaders and platforms in local campaigns. With national polls pointing to another Liberal minority with results shaping up to be in the same ballpark as the last election, the question becomes, what would draw 10 points away from the Conservative base in Kootenay-Columbia?

Apparent possibilities are the pandemic and the climate crisis, the latter of which drove an exceptional wildfire season here that threatened communities and choked out much of the summer with a blanket of smoke, bringing a new realization to more people of the in-our-lifetimes and in-our-pocketbooks nature of our new climate reality from here on in.

The other is the effect the PPC party will have on the Conservatives.

The PPC is the new wildcard in Kootenay-Columbia. In another mid-pandemic election in B.C., the party’s messaging around vaccines has resonated with a small but electorally not insignificant minority. We’ll know what that translates to this election in this riding in less than a week. Last election a candidate running under the People’s banner got 2% of the vote. This election Invermere resident Sarah Bennett is running for the PPC, and given the heated fringe dialogue around vaccines, it seems likely she’ll pick up more votes from those deeply opposed to pandemic public health measures, and other reasons.

NDP candidate Wayne Stetski, a professional parks conservation manager by trade, has positioned himself as a champion of environmental conservation and climate change issues in the region, in addition to the federal NDP’s policy basket outlined in their platform. He’s also positioned himself as someone who can reach across the aisle and work with the Liberals on regional policy issues. He points to his relationship with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Heck, even his main rival, Rob Morrison has posted a photo of Stetski mugging with Trudeau in an attack ad. Different things to different people.

Morrison’s approach to the current Liberal government has been adversarial.

Polling by has Stetski and Morrison neck and neck, with Morrison the slight edge at 41% to Stetksi’s 40%. However, the polling has a big +/- 8% confidence interval, meaning the picture is less clear. In fact, was dead wrong in its projection for the 2019 Kootenay-Columbia result for Rob Morrison, falling outside of its big 8.3% confidence interval and predicting Stetski would win. Aside from highlighting that it is a two-way race between the Conservatives and NDP in Kootenay-Columbia, you place your bets and take your chances by assuming Kootenay-Columbia polls provide a detailed picture of what’s really happening in the riding.

This realpolitik in our resource-dependent rural riding happens at the jobs level. As in, ‘Will this vote affect my job?’ That’s where the electoral yards come harder. Unlike urban ridings where new industries are churned out on a regular basis and employment opportunities are more diverse, people here realize their employment options are limited and losing what they’ve got now may well mean taking steps down the ladder. Generally, this supports the status quo, making a change message a harder sell to some.

On the other hand, the large and growing tourism industry stinging from the pandemic and disastrous summer fires sees the need for climate action.

Jagmeet Singh’s visit on the final weekend reinforces the NDP’s message that the riding is in play and could energize local voters.

After the election this Monday, Sept. 20, we’ll find out how it all shakes out in Kootenay-Columbia.