Why St. John's East is a riding to watch in this federal election

Don't expect much political fireworks in Newfoundland and Labrador as the federal election campaign kicks into high gear, with most observers saying Justin Trudeau's Liberals will once again dominate the landscape in Canada's most easterly province.

But voters in St. John's East — one of 338 ridings across Canada — could have a big say in the outcome of the Oct. 21 election.

The prospects are high for a minority government in Ottawa, with the incumbent Liberals and the Andrew Sheer-led Conservative Party of Canada neck-and-neck in most political polls.

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That could vault the New Democrats or the surging Green Party into a balance-of-power scenario, and that's why many are keenly watching St. John's East, where incumbent Liberal and first-term MP Nick Whalen is fighting for his political survival.

"That seat is up for grabs," Memorial University political scientist Kelly Blidook told CBC News.

Whalen's challenger is a familiar name: former federal and provincial NDPer Jack Harris. 

Harris easily won the riding in the 2008 and 2011 federal elections, but was upset by Whalen four years ago, losing by fewer than 650 votes.

Harris feeling positive

Now Harris is back, looking to return to Ottawa.

"My feeling so far is very positive, (but) it's going to be a challenge. There's an incumbent who's been there for four years, so it comes down to who do you want to send to Ottawa to represent your interests," Harris said during a phone interview Wednesday.

Whalen said his plan is to campaign hard, have fun, and remind voters of the Liberal "record of success" over the past four years.

"At the end of the day, the voters are always right," he said.

Whalen predicts a "good three-way race," with Pouch Cove Mayor Joedy Wall carrying the Conservative banner.

"I feel this election is clearly about good, solid representation," Wall said during a CBC Here & Now candidates' panel Wednesday.

Wall is the least-known of the three candidates, and said he is trying to change that by knocking on doors and listening to people's concerns.

"Ninety per cent of the concerns I'm hearing are on the local level," said Wall.

There are seven ridings up for grabs in Newfoundland and Labrador, with the Liberals sweeping the entire province — along with all 32 seats in Atlantic Canada — in 2015.

Six ridings a 'foregone conclusion'

Liberal incumbents Yvonne Jones (Labrador), Gudie Hutchings (Long Range Mountains), Scott Simms (Coast of Bays-Central-Notre Dame), Churence Rogers (Bonavista-Burin-Trinity), Ken McDonald (Avalon) and cabinet minister Seamus O'Regan (St. John's South-Mount Pearl) are expected to hold onto their seats.

The Conservatives have been cast into the political wilderness in Newfoundland and Labrador for the past decade, and while the party has fielded a candidate in all seven ridings, it's hard to imagine any of them pose a serious threat to the Liberal incumbents.

"I'd probably say that for the most part, across most of the province, what we'll see is campaigns where the outcome is probably sort of a foregone conclusion," said Blidook.

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The NDP's strength, meanwhile, is concentrated in St. John's East, where Harris has proven his popularity. He said it's time that an MP who does not have to walk in step with the government is sent to Ottawa.

"We need a strong voice in Ottawa to have both sides of the issue heard and to be challenged on what they're doing wrong and what they're not doing that they should be doing," Harris said.

The Green Party is fielding candidates, but their time is not now, said Blidook.

"This is probably a province where it won't really take hold," he said of the Green Party. "And if it does, it will be a fair ways down the road by people kind of plugging away at it."

A Trudeau-Ball 'connection'

It will be the second time in five months that voters in Newfoundland and Labrador will go to the polls, with the provincial Liberals being reduced to minority status in the May provincial election, with victories in 20 of the 40 districts.

Blidook believes the federal campaign will be a "bit of a yawner" in most of the province, but expects the Liberal incumbents to get a boost from what he calls a "connection" between Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Premier Dwight Ball.

He said a new Atlantic Accord deal and a promise by the federal Liberals to help manage electricity rates in the Muskrat Falls era will help.

"There's a lot of stuff that had kind of connected us to the federal Liberals and probably made people aware of them and possibly even seen some kind of a connection where having a Liberal government in Ottawa maybe has some helpful aspects for what we do here," he said.

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