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Keith Baldrey: BC Conservatives cast shadow over BC Liberal prospects

New party leader John Rustad has potential to inflict outsize damage to top centre-right party in the next provincial election.
New BC Conservative leader John Rustad will likely make his long-moribund party a big factor in the next B.C. election

Newly acclaimed BC Conservative party leader and veteran MLA John Rustad is trying to do something that a long line of predecessors have failed to do for decades: breath some life into that moribund organization and make it relevant in this province’s political arena.

Based on a number of factors, it would be appear he may stand a better chance than previous party leaders when it comes to achieving those goals.

And if he does bring the party even a modicum of respect and support, that could be very bad news for the BC Liberal party (even as it is in the process of changing its party name to BC United).

Rustad has some advantages previous party leader lacked. First of all, he’s been elected five times and has been a cabinet minister, so his public profile is considerably higher than the previous leader, Travis Bolin (or indeed pretty well any leader going back decades, with the possible exception of former longtime Conservative MP John Cummins).

Also, the fact he is physically present in the legislature chamber and the legislature corridors means he has immediate access to the news media, something no leader has had in years. As a result, his profile and his party’s profile will likely continue to build.

Rustad knows he doesn’t have to aim too high to take his party to the next level. The fact he has won his riding of Nechako Lakes five consecutive elections suggests he would be favoured to win it again come the next campaign, something that would deprive the BC Liberals of a much-needed seat .

If just one other Conservative candidate were to win a seat, the party would have official party status in the B.C. legislature for the first time in decades.

The party’s best chance of adding seats would likely come in either of the two Peace River ridings, especially if either of the incumbent BC Liberal MLAs opt not to run. But even if they do run, the Conservatives will likely be competitive (in the 2020 campaign, the party’s candidates finished a strong second in both ridings, winning a third of the vote in each) in the most conservative region of the province.

There are at least a half dozen other ridings where the Conservatives could play a decisive role in determining the next election outcome, should they run candidates in them. And under Rustad’s leadership, they likely will.

Three of them ― Fraser-Nicola, Kamloops-North Thompson, and Surrey-White Rock ― were won by the BC Liberals by the slimmest margins (less than 300 votes in each) so even a slight uptick of Conservative Party support could see the ridings fall into the BC NDP win column.

Strong showings by Conservative candidates in four ridings covering Chilliwack, Abbotsford and Langley allowed the NDP to win in each of them for the first time in a general election in 2020. A strengthened party under Rustad would presumably better the NDP’s hold on them come the next vote.

Rustad will spend the next 18 months boosting his party’s profile and organization. Of course, the Conservatives have tripped up before ― notably Cummins in the 2013 election, when his party was not a factor in the outcome ― so Rustad’s task is a big one.

But even if he achieves even a little bit of success it could split the vote once again on the centre-right side of the electorate, which would be music to the NDP’s ears, and a potential disaster for the BC Liberals.

Keith Baldrey is chief political reporter for Global BC.

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