Whoever wins the Manitoba Liberal leadership has a rare chance to steal votes away from both the NDP and Progressive Conservatives, but they will need to overcome some big internal challenges, says one expert on the province's politics.
Party members will choose their new leader Saturday from three candidates: Cindy Lamoureux, a young first-time MLA; Jon Gerrard, the experienced former party leader; and Dougald Lamont, a communications professional and university teacher without a seat in the legislature.
At one point a four-way race that included all three sitting Liberal MLAs running for the job, the leadership contest took its current form after Kewatinook MLA Judy Klassen dropped out and declared her support for Lamoureux.
Christopher Adams, a political scientist at the University of Manitoba's St. Paul's College, said the next leader needs to win over swing voters from both the centre-left and centre-right.
"It has to be someone who, firstly, can attract voters over to the Liberals from the NDP — especially in the suburban seats — but also to bring over some of those voters that might have moved from the NDP to the PCs in the last election, but who might still be shopping around for a party," Adams said.
In addition to winning over new voters, Adams said, the new leader needs to deal with organizational issues that hampered the party's efforts in the 2016 election.
At the time, the governing NDP faced voter anxiety over growing provincial debt and anger at the increase to the provincial sales tax, but the Liberals failed to capitalize on those issues under leader Rana Bokhari, who didn't win a seat in the legislature.
"A lot of people pointed the finger at Bokhari, but that was only part of the picture. The second thing was the organizational and financial capacity of the party organization in Manitoba for the Liberals."
Without enough financial and human resources to open offices, staff phones and maintain databases of voters, the party will continue to have a tough time winning elections, Adams said.
There are major geographic and demographic differences between the two sitting MLAs running for the Liberal leadership.
Gerrard, 70, has represented the River Heights riding since 1999. He served as leader of the Manitoba Liberals from 1998 to 2013 before stepping down.
Over the course of four elections under his leadership, the Liberals' share of the vote dropped every time. The party never captured more than two seats in the legislature during that period.
When Gerrard announced he was entering the current leadership race, he said he was doing so because people in the party encouraged him to. Lamoureux, however, said she and Klassen had a conversation with Gerrard months earlier in which he offered to support Lamoureux.
In contrast with the River Heights MLA, Lamoureux is in her 20s and represents the Burrows riding, in the northern part of the city — "which isn't really considered a typical Liberal territory, except her father [Liberal MP Kevin Lamoureux] has been able to gain votes both provincially and federally in that neighbourhood," Adams said.
Despite the fact that he doesn't have a seat, Adams said people shouldn't count Lamont out of the race. The fact that there are three candidates means he has a chance if voting on Saturday goes to a second ballot, when there is a chance for one candidate to claim the support of whoever drops off the ballot.
No clear front-runner
Unlike the NDP convention last month, Adams said there is no clear front-runner heading into Saturday's Liberal convention. Both Lamoureux and Gerrard have their strengths and handicaps.
"We're going into Saturday's convention with, really, there's no real sense of who's going to come out. Will it be Cindy Lamoureux, will it be Jon Gerrard, or will there be the dark horse candidate of Dougald Lamont?"
Lamoueux is young and energetic, but Adams said some in the party might see her as "unseasoned."
Gerrard, on the other hand, has support in key areas, particularly among upper-middle-class and professional voters, but his failure to make any major breakthroughs for the party in past elections could make members hesitant to support him now.
"In defense of Jon Gerrard, he was up against Gary Doer and then the first term of Greg Selinger, and the NDP was in a very popular position," said Adams. "So in a way, Gerrard's timing was quite unfortunate that he stepped aside just at the moment when the Liberal party had a window of opportunity in the 2016 election."
Political parties often experience a slight boost in support after a leadership convention, and combined with the enduring popularity of the federal Liberal party, Manitoba's Liberals have a chance to make a breakthrough in the next election, Adams said.
Saturday's convention will be held at the Victoria Inn Conference Centre in Winnipeg. The first round of voting begins at 2 p.m.