Alarm bells are ringing inside hard right Liberal warrior Sophie Mirabella’s Indi campaign as a popular local independent prepares to snag a significant proportion of the local vote and vault ahead of Labor in an Andrew Wilkie-style preference triumph.

A panicked email sent from deep inside the Mirabella camp to Liberal volunteers last week, obtained by Crikey, reveals her campaign team is gearing up for a pitched battle against rural independent Cathy McGowan in the northern Victorian seat, currently held by 9% and usually considered safe.

Realistically, McGowan is the most likely challenger to Mirabella’s crown, with Labor, the Greens and Wodonga-based independent Jennifer Podesta all expected to preference her highly. McGowan also has the support of retiring New England independent and hung parliament hero Tony Windsor.

In the email, campaign staffer Adam Wyldeck admits that Mirabella is at grave risk of being overwhelmed:

“Now that the campaign is in full swing, Cathy McGowan’s supporters are flooding every single one of the local papers with vitriolic letters of hatred towards Sophie as well as supportive letters about Cathy McGowan.”

The Wangaratta Chronicle reported this morning Mirabella was planning to spend a “six-figure sum” on the race and would blanket the electorate, which includes the towns of Wodonga, Mansfield and Benalla, with banner advertising. Wyldeck says in the letter:

“In the last 2 weeks, Cathy McGowan’s team has had at least one letter in EVERY PAPER, EVERY DAY. By contrast, Liberal supporters have had a total of no more than 3 letters across the various papers in the electorate. In other words, we are getting severely outflanked and outgunned by a far more active and enthusiastic campaign team.”

He goes on to suggest a number of talking points that Liberal supporters could send to local newspapers, including mocking the concept of a hung parliament and claiming Mirabella is “strong”.

Indi has been held by Mirabella — a former president of the Melbourne University Liberal Club in 1989 before she was dumped by moderate forces linked to Chris Muir halfway through her term — since 2001. She was elected under the name Sophie Panopoulos, and her primary vote has steadily declined over the years from 62.6% in 2004 to 54.4% in 2007 to just 52.6% in 2010 (in 2001 the result was warped by a three-cornered contest with the Nationals).

For McGowan to win, Mirabella’s primary vote would have to slide to well under 50% in the 10-candidate strong field (see below). McGowan, likely to come third, would need to benefit from Greens and minor party preferences to vault her over Labor’s Robyn Walsh, and then use Walsh’s preferences to leapfrog Mirabella. In 2010, Greens candidate Jenny O’Connor achieved 9.4% and Labor 27.2%. McGowan is not allocating preferences.

The Katter’s Australian Party candidate might also round behind McGowan (especially if Tony Windsor gets on the mobile), while Palmer United and Rise Up Australia are wild cards. The S-x Party is also an unknown quantity.

Independent Alan Lappin withdrew from the race last week, and the previous KAP candidate has withdrawn, with a replacement expected to be fingered soon.

A Greens source told Crikey this morning that the party was still investigating McGowan’s bona fides but that on the surface she seemed impressive. She is former president of Women in Agriculture, is a rural consultant and farmer and has regularly travelled to Canberra to advocate for rural communities. She was a research and electorate officer for the former Liberal member for Indi, Ewen Cameron, in the 1980s and has the support of local grassroots group Voice for Indi.

Indi has been in Liberal hands since 1977 and has been controlled by conservative parties for 82 years.

McGowan told Crikey she expected the result to be “close” and there was significant support for her campaign on the ground. “I’ve got a local vision for Indi based on agriculture, tourism and infrastructure, so that’s a huge attraction given the community campaign we’re running.

“The community might have a voice that represents their interests and needs in Canberra.”

In September 2011, Crikey revealed that Mirabella, then 42, was on a collision course with her deceased former lover Colin Howard’s children over his will. Howard, a retired university professor, died at the age of 83 after a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease.

The Indi field in possible primary vote order:

  • Sophie Mirabella — Liberal
  • Robyn Walsh — ALP
  • Cathy McGowan — Independent
  • Jenny O’Connor — Greens 
  • Jennifer Podesta — Independent
  • KAP candidate withdrawn, preselecting a replacement soon 
  • Helma Aschenbrenner — S-x Party
  • James Houston — 21st Century Australia Party
  • Bob Murphy — Palmer United
  • Bob Dudley — Rise Up Australia