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VIBERT: Houston favoured to win PC leadership

Jim Vibert
Jim Vibert - SaltWire Network

Close to 9,000 party members are expected to vote for — or rank — five solid candidates, but the winner will be determined by a point-system that gives all 51 ridings the same value whether they’re home to 500 voters or 50. Under those conditions, it’s pure folly to predict the outcome.

So, here goes.

Pictou East MLA Tim Houston arrives at this weekend’s convention the clear favourite to win and become the next leader of Nova Scotia’s Progressive Conservative Party. He may even accomplish what was said here, early in the campaign, to be virtually impossible in this field and with these rules — a first ballot win.

The possibility, or likelihood, of Houston winning this thing on one ballot moved from virtually impossible to an even-money bet, based on the unbridled confidence of his campaign team.

If he falls short on the first, they expect him to be close enough to fall over the finish line on the second ballot.

Houston’s problem, should he have one, arises if his first ballot support comes up shy of his team’s expectations and he’s not close enough to glide to the 50-per-cent-plus-one — that’s 2,551 points — needed to win on the second ballot.

The tea leaves and folks in four other camps say Houston has limited capacity to grow; that while he’s the first choice of many, he is the second choice of few. So, if the vote goes beyond two ballots it’s because Houston stalled short of the points needed to win, and the door is open for the others.

Enter Cape Breton Regional Mayor Cecil Clarke. Second on most scorecards, Clarke has more history in the party than the rest of the field combined. That includes a decade in the legislature, senior cabinet posts and more than a year in the Speaker’s chair, all before he became CBRM’s mayor in 2012.

Clarke’s formidable mix of long-held loyalties, broad name recognition and political skill was partially offset by a desire for change and new beginnings. For Tories looking for something new, Clarke’s experience wasn’t a draw.

To win, Clarke needs to be unassailably in second place after the first ballot, far enough ahead that the third-place finisher, whoever that is — John Lohr (PC-Kings North), Elizabeth Smith-McCrossin (PC-Cumberland North) or businesswoman Julie Chaisson — can’t overtake him on the next ballot.

Should Houston stall, and Clarke’s support build through two ballots, the mayor could become leader on the third.

Smith-McCrossin and Lohr formed a mutual aid pact late in the race, when each pledged second-choice support to the other and sent a clear message to their supporters to follow suit.

Many observers believe Lohr is in third place going into this weekend’s convention, but whether Lohr, Smith-McCrossin or Chaisson survives the first ballot or two, he or she still has one path to victory and it is a steep one.

First, she needs to overtake Clarke and then continue to grow at a pace to run down Houston. If all those stars line up, Lohr, Smith-McCrossin or Chaisson would “come up the middle” as they say and win the leadership.

Lohr is thought to be best positioned to pull that off, although Smith-McCrossin’s camp hasn’t conceded third place to the Valley farmer-businessman, nor has Julie Chaisson, an organizational change expert and director of the Halifax Seaport Farmers’ Market.

Voter turnout is higher than expected, approaching 80 per cent of the party’s 11,600 members if the vote total hits 9,000. That surprised most campaign vote trackers, who just two weeks ago were expecting something closer to 60 per cent of the membership to vote.

The vast majority of votes are already in the party’s hands in the form of preferential ballots, ranking leadership choices from first to last. Several hundred members are still expected to attend the leadership convention in Halifax and vote on each ballot.

So, what’s the bottom line?

The heavy voter participation tossed a bit of a wildcard into the mix, but the signs still point to Houston.

To win, Houston needs to either take it on the first ballot or be close enough that he doesn’t need much help to win on the second. But, if Houston’s points are closer to 40 per cent than 50 after the first ballot, the race opens up to the field and Saturday’s finale to this nine-month odyssey could be another long, anxious and drama-filled day for the candidates and their campaign volunteers.

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