New Brunswick Liberal leadership candidate Susan Holt has been pitching herself as the “change” candidate in the party race that draws to a conclusion this weekend.
But it won’t be clear until Saturday’s result how real — or ephemeral — that support will be.
Holt is relentlessly promoting social media posts on Twitter by New Brunswickers who describe her as a fresh face, different from conventional politicians.
“I can’t say I’ve even put much thought into why I have this feeling, but she’s giving me hope for politicians in general and for government in the province,” said Jamie Nason, a resident of Tracy, a rural community outside Fredericton.
Nason is a self-described progressive voter, as is Douglas Mullin, a longtime NDP candidate and volunteer who recently bought a Liberal membership to vote for Holt.
“For the Liberal Party, what she’s presenting is definitely fresh,” he said.
J.P. Lewis, a political scientist at the University of New Brunswick in Saint John, said the Holt groundswell on social media doesn’t necessarily reflect reality but “these are our best cues to what’s going on. … It can be the only information that we can clearly see.”
‘New’ is a common theme
All four candidates in the leadership race are promoting themselves as new in one way or another.
Former MP T.J. Harvey is posting messages of support on his Facebook page from ordinary New Brunswickers. Liberal MLA Robert Gauvin’s history as a former Progressive Conservative underscores his own unique form of newness.
Even former Liberal candidate minister and MLA Donald Arseneault is arguing he purposely built a campaign team made up of people from outside the party’s old guard.
But Arseneault is warning that the temptation to choose a brand-new leader has caused the Liberals grief in the last two provincial elections.
Holt is “definitely a strong candidate. She does have a lot of qualities that would make her a great leader,” Arseneault said.
But “we went with fresh faces in the past. The last two [leaders], we went through fresh faces, and look where we are now.”
He was referring to former premier Brian Gallant, who failed to win a second majority in 2018 and lost power, and to Kevin Vickers, a political newcomer who failed to unseat the Progressive Conservatives in 2020.
Nason couldn’t identify a specific policy or issue that Holt has raised that won her over.
“It’s the fact that she’s acknowledging that people have concerns at all,” she said.
“I can’t even say that there’s any specific issue that she’s come out on where I’ve said ‘That thing really needs taking care of.’ It’s more general than that — that she’s talking about people at all. … It feels different, at the very least.”
Leap of faith
Mullin said he knows NDP-leaning voters have been persuaded to cast strategic votes for Liberals in the past, only to be disappointed.
But he said he’s known Holt for more than a decade, so he’s taking a leap of faith she’ll live up to what she’s promising.
“I believe what’s she saying in the moment. So in the moment I’m putting my trust in that.”
We know she’s definitely not the first politician to say they’re going to bring a fresh approach to politics– J.P. Lewis
But the new interim leader of the New Brunswick NDP, Alex White, said it’s unlikely Holt would really break the mould.
“Regardless of the leadership of the Liberal Party … the policies have very rarely changed or brought improvements to the lives of everyday Canadians,” White said.
Lewis called Holt’s message “pretty abstract, and we know she’s definitely not the first politician to say they’re going to bring a fresh approach to politics.”
Nason said she doesn’t personally know people who are as excited as she is by Holt, though she sees a lot of them online, especially on Twitter.
“Maybe it’s just because she’s been smart enough to have a heavy social media presence,” Nason said.
“It’s worked before. Social media stardom has taken politicians where they wanted to go. Maybe that’s all it is. But it feels different. … It feels like she is what I want a politician to be.”
Lewis said the wavelet of enthusiasm for Holt can’t be ignored, even if it may dissipate between now and the next election in 2024 — and that’s assuming Holt wins at all.
If Holt doesn’t win, it’s not clear the people she has attracted to the party will want to stick around for a different leader. Mullin said he hasn’t decided what he’ll do if that happens.
Arseneault said while “new blood” is important for a political party, long-time party supporters can’t be taken for granted.
“We can’t just shove them aside,” said the former cabinet minister, who argues election campaigns are major efforts that are complicated to organize. “It takes people with experience as well.”
Holt has also been endorsed by a large number of old-guard Liberals, including former cabinet ministers Aldéa Landry, Bernard Thériault, Bernard Richard, Roly MacIntyre and Mary Schryer.
She also worked in former premier Brian Gallant’s government.
Still, Lewis said the buzz about Holt from non-Liberals is a positive sign for a party that hasn’t enjoyed much good electoral news since 2014.
“The New Brunswick Liberal Party needs any excitement it can get,” Lewis said.
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