With a provincial byelection set for Tuesday in a long-held Progressive Conservative riding in Newfoundland, there's something conspicuously hard to find on the Liberal candidate's campaign signs: the name of his party.

Instead, Fred Hutton's signs are emblazoned with Liberal Premier Andrew Furey's last name against a white backdrop — not the party’s signature red — with "Newfoundland and Labrador Liberals" in small, barely perceptible, text.

It's a striking contrast to 2015, when polls showed the federal Liberals' sweep to power had buoyed faith in provincial Liberals in Atlantic Canada, said Tim Powers, managing director of Abacus Data. But Powers said it's also a smart move, as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau now lags in public opinion polls after leading that Liberal victory, while Furey polls well.

About a month after Hutton launched his Liberal-lite campaign in the riding west of St. John's, the federal Liberals took another hit from a Newfoundland and Labrador politician. Last week, Liberal MP Ken McDonald told Radio-Canada that Trudeau had reached his "best-before" date and it was time for a review of his leadership. Though McDonald promptly walked that back, Powers said his comments could be a smart strategic move.

"He hears what's happening. He knows what's happening on the ground," Powers said of McDonald, pointing to an Abacus poll released Sunday showing the federal Conservative Party well ahead of Trudeau's Liberals in Atlantic Canada.

In an interview Monday, Hutton said the branding of his campaign was not his decision. However, he was clear about his allegiances: "I'm running for Team Furey, the premier of Newfoundland and Labrador."

He also dismissed his Progressive Conservative opponents' efforts to link the provincial and federal Liberals, referring to the "Furey-Trudeau Liberals" in their press releases. Hutton noted that Furey pushed back against the federal carbon pricing scheme and its impact on home heating costs.

"The opposition likes to try to paint it as though they are provincial taxes. They are not," said Hutton, who has been a senior adviser to Furey since 2020, when the premier was sworn in.

"I'm not connected with the federal Liberals at all," he added. "I'm running for the provincial Liberal party. They're two separate parties."

Liberal politicians in Newfoundland and Labrador distance themselves from party brand as Trudeau's popularity plummets. #cdnpoli #byelection

Alex Marland, a political science professor at Acadia University in Wolfville, N.S., said he was surprised to see how blatantly the Newfoundland and Labrador Liberals seem to be distancing themselves from their federal counterparts with Hutton's campaign materials.

Furey is the only Liberal provincial premier in the country, and he has often touted his strong relationships with Trudeau and with other federal Liberals, including Labour Minister Seamus O'Regan, who is the MP for a St. John's riding.

"He was making a point of this when it was to his advantage, and then obviously, they're moving away from it when they think it would hold them back," Marland said in an interview Monday.

However, he noted that the Liberal parties in British Columbia and Saskatchewan got rid of their associations with the federal party, rebranding last year as BC United, and the Saskatchewan Progress Party.

It shows how important public opinion polls are, and how much a federal party leader's popularity can influence provincial politics, Marland said.

But the emphasis on Furey's name over his party in Hutton's campaign also shows party brass it holds weight, and that "he's stronger than the Liberal brand itself," Marland said.

Voting is set for Tuesday in the Conception Bay East-Bell Island byelection, after a winter storm delayed the polls by one day. The Conservative candidate is Tina Neary, while Kim Churchill is running for the NDP and Darryl Harding is running as an Independent.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 29, 2024.

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