The Saskatchewan Election:

A 2020 Perspective

A Campaign over Before It Began

By MURRAY MANDRYK, Columnist, Regina Leader-Post and Saskatoon Star Phoenix

The 2020 Saskatchewan campaign—or at least any suspenseful elements—was over long before the Oct. 26 vote count. In fact, the story of Saskatchewan Party’s historic fourth consecutive large majority —48 seats compared with 13 for the New Democratic Party was likely written four years ago. As of three days after the election, there was a declared winner in all 61 ridings, even though an estimated 17,000 of 61,255 mail-in ballots were unreturned or unaccounted.

The night of the last general election, the Sask Party won 51 seats—31 of them by 2,500 votes or more. Only six times in the 115-year history of the province has a party lost a seat that it had won previously by 2,500 votes. Any remaining intrigue in the 2020 campaign was likely drained with the Oct. 15 release of a Postmedia/Angus Reid Institute poll conducted between Oct. 8 and 13 that revealed a commanding 27-percentage-point Sask Party lead. Notwithstanding late polls from Research Co. and Mainstreet Research suggesting that gap had closed to 18 percentage points in the waning days, the yet-to-finalize popular vote numbers revealed about a 30 percentage point difference—60 per cent for the Sask Party versus 30 per cent for the NDP. The left-of-centre alternative in Saskatchewan had not done this badly since 1938 when that party was the NDP’s forerunner Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) still awaiting the leadership of Tommy Douglas.

The 2020 campaign again demonstrated the Sask Party has clearly supplanted the NDP as the province’s natural governing party. It won big by running a more relatable and effective campaign during a pandemic. Incumbent Premier Scott Moe framed the Sask Party’s campaign around this question: “Who do you trust?” That particular message especially resonated outside of the cities in the province’s 29 “rural seats” that the Sask Party again swept.

The Sask Party political advertisements accentuated that message by drawing attention to schools and hospitals closed during the last NDP administration from 1991 to 2007. So effective was this messaging that Sask Party Moe’s Chevy Tahoe campaign vehicle seldom ventured into the countryside.

New Democrat leader Ryan Meili also stuck to the perceived battleground city seats in Regina, Saskatoon, Prince Albert, and Moose Jaw. All eight of the seats were too close to call on election night because the margins were less than the uncounted mail-in votes were in these cities.

One of the more memorable Sask Party advertisements focused on Meili speaking at a 2017 anti-pipeline rally and refusing to speak at a March 2019 “rally against the carbon tax.” Defining Meili’s image before the NDP proved to be a critical strategy for the Sask Party. It forced the NDP to dedicate scarce campaign-funding dollars on advertising introducing Meili to the voters as a family doctor raised on a farm near Moose Jaw.

The NDP’s campaign theme was “Putting People First,” and Meili repeatedly suggested on the campaign trail that “there’s got to be a better way.” But such NDP themes had to compete with two years of Moe’s messages that only he and the Sask Party could be trusted to take on federal Prime Minister “Justin Trudeau’s carbon tax.” So engrained was Moe’s anti-carbon tax message that he didn’t feel it necessary to raise it during the October 14 leaders’ debate broadcast provincewide.

The debate was a comparatively tame affair. However, Moe may have scored points when he suggested the $2.7B in NDP spending promises in its platform released on Oct 9 was more likely $4B. Moe’s own platform—released at the same time in Saskatchewan mere metres away from the NPD platform launch—called for an additional $849M in spending and acknowledged it wouldn’t balance the province’s annual until 2024-25. Saskatchewan New Democrats have feasted on their past record of balanced budgets while in government. Saskatchewan public debt has doubled to $24B under 13 years of the Sask Party government. But with a far more costly 2020 campaign platform to pay for a wide array of social concerns, Meili lost the NDP’s traditional high ground on fiscal responsibility issues.

The NDP campaign did raise mismanagement issues such as the Global Transportation Hub (GTH) that haunted the Sask Party government’s past term; there were allegations of friends of the party and former economy minister Bill Boyd making millions of dollars on land flips on highway interchange property eventually purchased by government for five times the appraised costs.

But Meili—who generally took a non-combative approach—didn’t even raise the GTH during the debate.

The NDP leader did seem to score during debate on Moe’s refusal to personally meet with Tristen Durocher, the young Métis man who set up a teepee on legislative ground green space to raise awareness of northern and Indigenous suicides. However, there didn’t seem to be too many defining moments for the family doctor, who even struggled to make an issue out of the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic. In a campaign in which large rallies were prohibited and mask-wearing candidates had to keep the prerequisite six-metre distance while on doorsteps, connecting with voters was an inevitable challenge.

The Sask Party may have risen to that challenge with “Kate from the Sask Party”—an automatic texting app employed before and during the campaign that allowed the governing party to identify supporters, connect with them, and encourage them to get to the polls.

But Moe and the Sask Party did not emerge from this campaign unscathed. Moe lost almost the entire first week of campaigning while having to explain previously unrevealed 1994 stayed charges for driving while under the influence and leaving the scene of an accident. Also, anonymous social media posts about Moe’s 1997 car crash that killed driver Joanne Balog resulted in the dead woman’s sons demanding to meet with and talk to the Premier. He vowed to do so after the campaign.

Finally, in a campaign where other parties were not considered a factor, the independence-promoting Buffalo Party came out of nowhere to finish third in popular vote with only 17 candidates. Perhaps Moe’s first campaign as Premier seemed easy, but it may have produced a few lasting problems.