Experts expect Perth-Wellington to stay blue after federal election

Political science experts from the University of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier University say Perth-Wellington will likely vote blue again in October's federal election.

Perth-Wellington MP John Nater. Photo by Bernard Thibodeau/House of Commons Photographic Services

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It’s no surprise, given Perth-Wellington’s political history, that federal election experts are expecting the Conservatives to once again take the riding in October’s federal election.

With the exception of Liberal MP John Richardson taking Perth-Middlesex – one of the ridings divvied up in 2003 to create Perth Wellington – in 1997, the local riding has remained blue for most of the past two decades, first under MP Gary Schellenberger and most recently under John Nater.

And with a few notable exceptions, political science experts are projecting the rural southwestern Ontario ridings that went to the Conservatives in the last federal election will go the same way this year.

“Ridings that are basically Liberal-Conservative contests – which certainly applies to Perth-Wellington – if the Conservatives won it last time, they should be favourable to win it this time,” said Barry Kay, an associate professor of political science at Wilfrid Laurier University, an election analyst and a member of Global Television’s election decision desk team.

In Perth-Wellington, where Nater won in 2015 with nearly 43 per cent of the vote over Liberal candidate Stephen McCotter’s 38 per cent, the Laurier Institute for the Study of Public Opinion and Policy is forecasting an even larger edge for the Conservatives in this election.

“In Perth, the margin last (election) was about five or six points. I would guess, based on the provincial figures I’ve looked at lately, it should probably be a 10-point difference this time. That’s not a huge win but, if for some reason the Conservatives take a huge dive in Ontario – stranger things have happened – perhaps it becomes competitive.”

While Nater, a former West Perth councillor with four years in Parliament under his belt, has significant name recognition among Perth-and-area voters, this year he’s going up against at least two candidates with significant local clout of their own.

The Liberal candidate, Pirie Mitchell, is a former educator and United Church minister in St. Marys, Palmerston and Stratford. Most notably, Mitchell helped bring together the congregations of St. John’s United Church and Central United Church in Stratford to form Avondale United Church.

Collan Simmons, meanwhile, is the federal Green Party’s Perth-Wellington candidate, the chief of anesthesiology at Stratford General Hospital and a resident of Stratford for nearly a decade.

NDP candidate Geoff Krauter and People’s Party of Canada candidate Rory Tekanoff will round out the local slate.

But while both are heavy hitters locally, especially in Stratford and Perth County, Peter Woolstencroft, a professor emeritus at the University of Waterloo specializing in national and provincial Canadian politics, says voters, in most cases, are less concerned with the qualifications of their local candidates and more focused on who will be the country’s next prime minister.

“If any one of (the Perth-Wellington candidates) was Bianca Andreescu, that name would matter,” Woolstencroft laughed. “I don’t think the four contenders, in all likelihood, have led such illustrious lives that people in Perth-Wellington are going to say, ‘This person should be my MP.’ … There’s two kinds of elections. There’s what I call a wave election, where people get caught up with a leader, and a vision, and the energy, and the look, and all that kind of stuff, and then there’s the other kinds of elections, which is the majority of them, where people have various kinds of disgruntlements and grievances, and that party cobbles together an appeal which brings them in and produces a minority or majority (government).”

Woolstencroft said this year’s election is the latter, leading him to expect less voter turnout than in 2015. Because Perth-Wellington went to the Conservatives during what some would say was the height of Justin Trudeau’s popularity, the riding likely won’t turn red now that his popularity has waned.

“Our elections are primarily about which person do you want as prime minister,” Woolstencroft said. “It’s a referendum on the leaders. Do you like Andrew Scheer? Do you like Justin Trudeau? What about (Jagmeet) Singh? What about Elizabeth May?

“The local candidates sadly, sadly, sadly fade in comparison unless their name is Bianca, unless they have that name recognition.”

But voters can be fickle, and both Woolstencroft and Kay say a major political gaffe or the reveal of a ruinous personal secret to the detriment of either Nater or Scheer could give Liberals the competitive edge in the riding.

“In terms of local candidates, it’s normally the leading candidates screwing up than the challenging candidates coming up with something clever (that turns the tide in local elections),” Kay said.

However, even if Nater did suffer a misstep in his bid for re-election, Woolstencroft said voters, especially those in rural ridings, can be more forgiving of any mistakes, past or present, that may come up.

“If you wanted to make some easy money … I would bet that the Conservatives will win (in Perth-Wellington) unless Andrew Scheer really messes up – a gaffe from the top,” Woolstencroft said.