01/07/2016 10:24 AM AEST | Updated 15/07/2016 12:56 PM AEST

There Is A Bitter Battle In Mayo That Is Much Bigger Than Jamie Briggs

And the Nick Xenophon Team.

Fairfax: Andrew Meares
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull joins Briggs' campaign.

The main road winding into Mount Barker is scattered with campaign signs. There are more smiling faces than signs here because the two leading candidates' campaigns have been hijacked by their party leaders -- Malcolm Turnbull and Nick Xenophon.

It makes sense really. One isn't well known enough and another is too well known for the wrong reasons these days.

And this is why the race between Liberal Jamie Briggs and Nick Xenophon Team candidate Rebekha Sharkie in the South Australian electorate of Mayo is the most interesting race in the country.

Beyond the shiny surface of a few campaign signs, a scandal and a new political force, there's an issue engulfing not only a long-held Liberal electorate, but a state. And if you look a bit further, a country.

Fairfax: Alex Ellinghausen
Liberal MP Jamie Briggs takes a seat on the backbench after resigning from the ministry.

During summer it was pretty hard to miss the series of unfortunate events surrounding Jamie Briggs. The Cities Minister resigned from the ministry in December after acting inappropriately towards a public servant in a crowded Hong Kong bar. What followed was a leaked photo of the public servant to a national broadsheet, a senior minister calling a journalist a "mad f****ing witch" and further calls -- this time for an inquiry into the whole ordeal.

Six months on, Briggs is knee-deep in the biggest fight of his political life to keep hold of an electorate he has represented since 2008. His family has stood by him, the party has too, but with latest Newspoll revealing Briggs has 41 percent of the primary vote to Sharkie's 38 percent (and with preferences Sharkie could win the race) the electorate may not have been so forgiving.

It's clear the Coalition is concerned. Briggs' campaign has been injected with appearances from former Prime Minister John Howard and the Prime Minister himself. Briggs has also remained tight-lipped.

The Huffington Post Australia made multiple attempts to speak to Briggs, who could not find the time in the final 24 days of the campaign for an interview. The young Liberal also refused to answer basic election questions from the ABC journalist who reported on the Hong Kong incident.

A former South Australian Premier and Federal Liberal Senator, John Olsen, told The Huffington Post Australia the incident has had a "disproportionate impact" on the embattled MP which "has been detrimental to him".

"I have seen in other circumstances where a politician has felt so aggrieved about how they've been treated they actually give the story oxygen unwittingly, and I think that happened in this case," said Olsen, who is now a Special Adviser at political lobbying firm Bespoke Approach, which is not working on behalf of any candidate in Mayo.

FiveAA radio host and former editor of Adelaide's Sunday Mail David Penberthy said both the Coalition and Briggs are "really worried" while Xenophon thinks his best chance of winning a seat comes down to Mayo.

"I feel like [Briggs] is maybe a bit jaded with it all," Penberthy said.

"It's a big thing, losing your ministry. And going from a John Howard confidante to being in a government led by a moderate doesn't really fill you with joy I guess."

Fairfax: Barry Skipsey
Victor Harbor attracts holidaymakers and retirees, with the city booming with tourism in summer.

The Electorate

The electorate of Mayo lies on the southern outskirts of Adelaide, spanning from the affluent Adelaide Hills down to the coastal city of Victor Harbor all the way across to Kangaroo Island. It's traditionally a blue ribbon Liberal seat, home to winemakers and dairy farmers. But development over the past decade -- including the introduction of a massive freeway -- has eased the commute into the city. This has changed the electorate in a huge way.

More Adelaide residents are buying holiday homes, more locals are commuting to city-based jobs, and coastal cities like Victor Harbor have become a hub for retirees. Towns are full but the town centres are often empty during the week. Many young people are leaving to find employment, with the electorate now home to an eclectic mix of electors -- from farmers to hippies.

"The socioeconomic structure of the seat has changed significantly," Olsen told HuffPost Australia.

"It changes in the context of traditionally conservative voting in the main. When you get an injection of new residents from outside that [regional] environment you bring in a whole new range of attitudes and priorities.

"It's really the predisposed attitudes of people that are now in the mix which is very different than what it was 20 years ago."

Jobs, health and infrastructure dominate the policy values in the area, with South Australia still claiming the highest rate of unemployment in the country. An influx of residents has boosted the need for more sporting facilities. Saturdays on the football field and netball courts have always been the backbone of these towns, and Briggs has promised the Victor Harbor Football Club a $500,000 expansion if re-elected.

Fairfax: Andrew Meares
Turnbull and Briggs announced funding for the Mount Barker Regional Sports Hub in June.

Managing Partner at Bespoke Approach Ian Smith said the changing nature of the electorate has only opened up the potential for a third political force to strike.

"The electorate has in one sense, a soft underbelly, it's not like a Sturt or a Boothby or an Eastern Suburbs Sydney electorate. I don't think anyone should be surprised when there's a strong third force." Smith said.

And it's not the first time. Former Foreign Minister Alexander Downer held the seat for more than two decades, but only won by about 3000 votes in the 1998 election, when the Australian Democrats' John Schumann entered the race.

The Sharkie-Briggs race has been compared to '98, which delivered a margin of 1.7 percent. Sharkie told HuffPost Australia her disappointment in the lack of political action in the electorate made her decide to run.

"Alexander Downer said -- when he left Parliament -- that when John Schumann challenged him it made him a better politician, and he really worked hard after that," Sharkie said.

And a close margin is exactly what some electors want.

HuffPost Australia travelled to Mayo to find an electorate turning to this third political force for reasons aside from Briggs' public indiscretions. Stoic Liberal voters will still vote for Briggs, putting the party before the candidate. But the people turning away from Briggs are doing so because of they haven't seen enough action from their federal member.

Retiree and former Secretary of the Victor Harbor Golf Club Dennis Wilden said he'll be voting for Briggs despite the "extremely disappointing" incident in December.

"People I've spoken to over the last couple of months, some of them who have been Liberal voters have argued that they're deliberately going to vote away from that to make it a more marginal seat," Wilden said.

Wilden, who is aged in his 60s, said there's a feeling of Briggs' "self interest" but locals involved in projects with the Liberal candidate have raved about his performance as their local member.

"But then you sit back and look back at his overall performance and you think, 'well, hang on a minute. What is he actually doing? Looking after the electorate or looking after himself?'

"I think the latter has been what people have perceived."

The Mayo electorate is home to some of the state's best wine regions in McLaren Vale and the Adelaide Hills.

Rebekha Sharkie And The Nick Xenophon Team

Enter Rebekha Sharkie, riding on the waves of the Nick Xenophon movement. A political campaign doesn't get much more grassroots than Sharkie's. The former Briggs' staffer who has a strong background in social policy has covered more than 400,000 kilometres in her silver four-wheel drive, mortgaged her house and quit her job to win the electorate. Speaking in town halls and walking the streets handing out flyers, Sharkie's big political fights lie in youth employment, securing a 24-hour GP service for Mount Barker and improving public transport throughout the region.

When questioned about some of her political convictions being state issues -- instead of federal issues she can address in a lower house seat if she were to win -- Sharkie said she aims to be a "screeching wheel" in Parliament, bringing a voice to every issue she can.

"I think it's about a different style of representation, I want to be highly consultative with the community," Sharkie told HuffPost Australia.

And at the moment, that answer is enough for many people. There's a level of distrust towards the major parties simmering on the surface of this electorate, which reflects a nationwide sentiment. A recent Newspoll revealed 20 percent of Australians will be voting for minor parties.

And when the South Australian Premier is ignoring calls to resign over child protection policies failing, following five years of constant political knifing at a federal level, this has only fuelled voters' disengagement and frustration.

Penberthy said the Nick Xenophon Team has become "such a force this time" because voters have had their right to elect the Prime Minister "basically pinched off them by caucus, not once but twice".

"You marry that with Bronwyn Bishop's helicopter and then all of a sudden you've got someone waiting in the wings who is already liked by a lot of people who is neither Labor nor Liberal," Penberthy said.

"And all he's got to do is stand up and say 'G'day, I'm Nick' and a third of the state will say, 'You beauty, I'm sick of these other assholes, I'm going to vote for him.'"

Fairfax: David Mariuz
Nick Xenophon Team candidate Rebekah Sharkie is hoping to be a 'screeching wheel' in Parliament if she wins Mayo.

You don't have to look much further than Xenophon's campaign slogans to see this. 'Politics, done differently' and 'We fight for SA' have tapped into what Penberthy calls the state's "chip on both shoulders".

"We feel that the world has passed us by here. A lot of people say 'Bloody Canberra, the car industry vanished and all the attention goes to the eastern states.'"

When told Xenophon could end up holding the balance of power, Penberthy said there's a significant number of the people who's response is 'well, good'.

"For every voter who is alarmed by it there's another whose attracted to it," Penberthy said.

Hand in hand with influence comes scrutiny which both Xenophon and his candidates are not accustomed to. You can't turn on the television at night in South Australia without seeing a scare campaign ad against the NXT. A recent interview with Sky News' Laura Jayes caught Sharkie off-guard when she was questioned about free trade agreements. Sharkie said she wasn't warned it would be a discussion point.

"Nick [Xenophon] has enjoyed a period free of close analysis for many years by virtue of being a sole trader. He's afforded the luxury of being able to speak out on any issue and then moving on to the next one," Smith told HuffPost Australia.

"There is greater scrutiny now of him because he is putting up a number of people and he could be a significant force. And to some degree he can no longer walk out with a billboard on and be taken seriously. There's a lot more."

Voters connect with Xenophon because he's a hard worker. A straight talker. Sharkie is too. But whether Sharkie has the quickfootedness of her leader is yet to be seen.

As HuffPost Australia leaves a cafe in Mount Barker with Sharkie, she ends up in election chat with a local man. Lamenting his frustration with the major parties, the man concedes he's at a loss who to vote for. Sharkie tells him she's running. He praises Xenophon.

"But what's your background? How long have you been with him?" the elector asks.

Her ability to sell herself as well as Xenophon essentially answers the race. Xenophon's safety net lies in the name -- which Sharkie says he regrets and will eventually change. But it's hard to believe an exceptional retail politician made such a huge mistake, when it's now working so well for him.

"In my experience, people will vote for the party, slightly influenced by the candidate over the candidate slightly influenced by the party," Smith said.

"The question is, does [Briggs] come back to a ministry? I think he's entirely capable of coming back. He is working pretty hard. I think it's going to be very, very, very close. It would be a shame to lose Jamie.

"You want to keep smart, young politicians in Parliament. And I think Jamie is smart, he's young... and he has deep policy knowledge on industrial relations."

The fascinating piece of the puzzle in South Australia is major parties are deliberately trying to lose, said Penberthy, which is seen in Sturt, Port Adelaide and Mayo. Mayo's Labor candidate Glen Dallimore is trailling miles behind Sharkie and Briggs.

"In both Mayo and Sturt it's very much in the best interests of the Labor party for Labor to poll really badly. This only likely result to knock off Briggs and Pyne is for Labor to run dead and the Xenophon candidates to come up through the middle," Penberthy said.

And if Sharkie does succeed?

"When you've got a guy who has been such a lone wolf as Xenophon, a guy who has just totally run his own race, history does show that for these parties, it's very hard to get all their ducks in a row," Penberthy said.

"At the moment it's anyone's guess. But it's a risk that a lot of people are clearly prepared to take."