National's surge in popularity under new leader Todd Muller adds intrigue to the race in the Tukituki electorate, writes Hawke's Bay Today editor Craig Cooper
Even before National's party popularity bump this week, Tukituki was looming as the most intriguing electorate in Hawke's Bay.
Third-time Labour candidate Anna Lorck is taking an all-or-nothing approach against National's Lawrence Yule, with her self-imposed absence from the Labour party list.
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Aspiring MPs in Lorck's situation often end up campaigning solely for the party vote.
Lorck says this is not the case for her - she wants to be an electorate MP and revealed early in her campaign that she had sought an exemption from the Labour list.
It is a bone fide political tactic. There are a couple of reasons - it creates strategy options for a party's list in contestable seats.
And it can also allow MPs faced with poor potential list positions to remove the negative connotation of a low list ranking.
Lorck says she is the former, not the latter and is confident she can not only erode Yule's majority, but erase it.
In 2014, National's Craig Foss had a 6490 majority in Tukituki over debutant candidate Lorck.
Three years earlier, Foss' majority had been 9660 over Labour's Julia Haydon-Carr.
In 2017, National's candidacy majority was halved when Yule beat Lorck by 2813 votes.
Pre-election talk had been about the baggage Yule was carrying - marked "Havelock North water crisis" - and to what extent it would cost him.
As mayor of Hastings District Council, Yule was in the hot seat when the cause of the fatal Havelock North campylobacter outbreak was investigated.
The blame was never laid at the feet of a particular council, or regulatory body.
So why did National's majority halve in 2017?
There is no analytical tool to tell us that the hangover from the water crisis cost Yule votes or that Lorck's messaging and campaigning struck a chord with voters.
Or even that the party popularity Labour was enjoying as National struggled to make an impact after the end of John Key's leadership translated into shifted candidate votes.
Or indeed, all of the above.
The Tukituki party vote has long been blue, but party votes can wither when parties are affected by leadership and personnel issues, as with National. Or when the party in power enjoys crisis-management popularity, as Labour has.
Except that, this week, National has bounced back to 38 per cent in a Colmar Brunton poll under Muller's leadership.
The nine percentage points that Labour has lost - bringing them to 50 per cent - have gone straight to National's bottom popularity line.
Muller's leadership? Or the cracks that have appeared this week beneath Labour's Covid-19 PR veneer.
It's the perennial political question - am I doing a great job or is my opponent having a nightmare?
As expected, Tukituki farmers are not happy with Labour's handling of the drought crisis, it was grossly overshadowed by Covid-19.
But the rural sector has never been impressed by political shades of red.
Labour was never going to get the majority of that party vote, but it seems that all things considered, the next MP for Tukituki will be decided by the scrap on the hustings in the next few months.
Voters will want to hear what Lorck, who was elected to the DHB in 2019, offers over and above Yule, who now has his first central government term tucked under his political belt.
It's third time round for Lorck - not unusual for aspiring electorate MPs. Just ask Napier's Stuart Nash.
Obviously, voters will want to hear what Yule considers he achieved as a first-term Opposition MP, and what he plans on doing in the next three years.
It is a fact that Lorck has reduced National's majority from 9660 to 2813 in two elections, and if the trend continues, the race is going to be close.
For Tukituki, it could be the first time in a decade that an election comes down to the performance of the candidates on the hustings. It is theirs to win. Or lose, as the case may be.