Liberal campaigning slow to start on Island where they face tough races in May

With only three months until the provincial election, eager candidates are already out knocking on voter doors — except for the B.C. Liberals on Vancouver Island, where the party has yet to declare candidates in half the ridings.

According to the most recent party list, the Liberals have nominated candidates in seven of 14 Island ridings — including two incumbent MLAs seeking re-election. By comparison,  the NDP have candidates in all 14 ridings and the B.C. Greens have named eight Island candidates.

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The absence of Liberals, especially in swing ridings such as Saanich North and the Islands, is surprising political watchers, who wonder if the party is deliberately planning a late launch, having trouble recruiting candidates or merely disorganized.

Some are even questioning if the governing Liberals have given up on certain ridings in the face of polls that have repeatedly put New Democrats far ahead among Island voters — a claim the party strongly denies.

With 95 days until the May 14 provincial election, most candidates say they have been in election-planning mode for months: putting together campaign teams, outlining strategies, searching for office space and hitting every community event possible to raise their profile with voters.

“How can you be at this stage in February and not have the ridings with candidates?” asked University of Victoria professor Michael Prince. “It’s really bad optics for the Liberals on the Island. I think it looks like the interpretation, and not an unfair one, is they are having a challenge finding candidates who will fight for the party with very little hope for victory.”

The NDP has consistently polled ahead of the Liberals on Vancouver Island in recent months.

A January Angus Reid opinion poll put the NDP (51 per cent of those surveyed) well ahead of the Liberals (27 per cent) on the Island — the same numbers seen a year ago. In the most recent poll, 17 per cent said they would vote Green, while the Conservatives netted five per cent.

The NDP holds 10 of the 14 Island ridings, and the incumbents are running for re-election in all of them. But even the Liberal-held ridings aren’t necessarily a lock for the party. One battleground is Saanich North and the Islands. The Liberals have held the riding for 22 years but only squeaked out victory by 245 votes in 2009. Murray Coell, MLA for the riding, is retiring, and the party has yet to declare a new candidate — even though he told the premier two years ago.

Coell said he has attended community events where NDP candidate Gary Holman and B.C. Green Party candidate Adam Olsen were working the room around him.

The strategy is to not  launch a Liberal candidate until March, he said.

“I prefer that,” Coell said. “It’s nice to have three or four months in advance, but you build a bit of instant momentum if you can get [a candidate declared] close to an election.”

Political experts are skeptical. That strategy only works if the party names a star candidate who doesn’t need to spend time introducing himself or herself to the community, said Allan Warnke, a political science professor at Vancouver Island University.

“Anyone who does not have a profile who gets nominated shortly before the writ or shortly after, there’s just not enough time to organize an uphill battle for a campaign,” he said. “That’s a really poor strategy.”

The Liberals haven’t named their candidates in 25 B.C. ridings. On the Island, vacancies still exist in Victoria-Beacon Hill, Juan de Fuca, Saanich South, Nanaimo-North Cowichan, Nanaimo,  Alberni-Pacific Rim, and Saanich North and the Islands. That’s not unusual, given that the Liberals have few incumbents on the Island, said Mike McDonald, B.C. Liberal campaign director. The party has four Island MLAs, and only two are seeking re-election.

“We haven’t dropped the ball,” said McDonald, a former Liberal organizer on the Island. “Obviously, campaigning in the pre-writ helps, but you’ve got to finish strong, that’s what really matters.

“We’re confident and taking our time to make sure we have the best possible candidates we can run. If we wanted to throw any name on the ballot, we’d have candidates now.”

The Liberals are close to confirming candidates in Nanaimo-North Cowichan, Juan de Fuca, Victoria-Beacon Hill, and both Saanich ridings, he said.

New Democrats say they are puzzled but pleased at the slow-moving Liberal campaign.

“It’s a curious situation,” said Lana Popham, Saanich South NDP MLA.

Popham said she was out eight months before the 2009 election to meet voters and organize her team.

“At this point, that’s what you should be doing,” she said. “If you’re still looking for a candidate, it may speak to a lack of organization.”

McDonald dismissed the suggestion: “Every riding has its own story.”

The Liberals hold the ridings of Comox Valley, where Education Minister Don McRae is seeking a second term; Parksville-Qualicum, where Paralympic gold-medallist Michelle Stilwell is trying to hold the riding after Ron Cantelon retires; Oak Bay, where Aboriginal Affairs Minister Ida Chong is seeking a fifth term; and⊇Saanich North and the Islands, where Coell is retiring.

rshaw@timescolonist.com

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