While anyone running for office at any level should never take the electorate for granted even in a “safe” seat, Ben Stewart’s win in the Kelowna West byelection Wednesday should not have come as any surprise.
Even with an NDP government in Victoria, an embarrassingly low voter turnout and what could well have been considered strong campaigns by other candidates if they were in other ridings, Kelowna West was always Stewart’s race to lose.
There was a reason his predecessor, former party leader and premier Christy Clark, chose Kelowna West in 2013 when she needed an easy entrance back into the B.C. Legislature. Kelowna West is considered by provincial politicians as safe a Liberal seat as they come.
And Stewart’s win Wednesday once again proved that.
He took just over 56 per cent of the vote, more than the combined total of his four challengers. The closest any of them got to him was the NDP’s Shelley Cook, who garnered the typical 23 to 25 per cent that NDP candidates usually get in provincial elections in the riding. (In 2013 it did push that number up to 30 per cent.)
But there was never any doubt that Stewart was heading back to Victoria once he threw his hat back into the political ring. It also didn’t hurt that he was a known quantity for voters, having literally been there and done that before.
Stewart stepped down as MLA in 2013 just weeks after being re-elected to let Clark run in a byelection. Despite a few barbs thrown at him during this campaign about being a quitter for stepping down, Stewart ran the typical front-runner race—keep your head down and don’t say too much.
On Wednesday he described this campaign as his toughest so far. But, realistically, that likely had more to do with the time of year than the challenge of winning voter support.
His victory reunites him with his former “Team Okanagan” colleagues, Norm Letnick of Kelowna-Lake Country and Steve Thomson of Kelowna-Mission. The Three Amigos ride again. But this time they are straddling the Opposition benches in the Legislature.
If Stewart is right about the NDP finding it harder to govern than be in Opposition, after 16 years in power the B.C. Liberals will also likely find it harder to sit in Opposition than to be in power.
Winning his seat back may prove to have been the easy part of Stewart’s return to political life.
While all three men are hardworking MLAs who have delivered in the past, the days of the gravy train stopping in the Okanagan to make deliveries—as was often the case here when the B.C. Liberals were in power—appear to have come to an end. Of course, it didn’t hurt that the premier was a local MLA.
But that was then and this is now.
The NDP government may be listening when the Okanagan makes requests, but will it deliver to an area that remains staunchly right-of-centre? Only time will tell.
Alistair Waters is the assistant editor of the Capital News.
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