OTTAWA — The federal Liberals would like you to believe that if he’s elected prime minister, Conservative leader Andrew Scheer will be just like his predecessor Stephen Harper.
The federal Conservatives take that as something of a compliment. Harper built the modern Conservative party, continues to be its biggest fundraiser, and today there are six likeminded premiers across the country.
Conservatives also point to some math: in the 2015 election, 5.6 million ballots were cast for their candidates, compared to 5.8 million in 2011. The Liberals will claim they won because people were sick of Harper. The Conservatives say it was because three million new voters showed up, and most of them for the Liberals.
So what the party takes as its challenge this election is finding a way to stay in the comfort zone for a base that is content in Harper’s shadow, and finding a way to emerge from it enough to attract those new voters.
Unlike Harper, whose first official role in the party was leading it, Scheer has moved his way up the ranks. In caucus, he takes a much more collaborative approach than Harper did.
There are echoes of that in the campaign plan. Marketing materials and fundraising pitches talk about “Team Scheer” — the leader’s name is on it, but he’s part of a group.
Scheer goes door-knocking with candidates and the Tory campaign is expected to favour more intimate events, in contrast to the massive rallies the Tories held with Harper.
The goal is to help Canadians get to know the man, said his campaign director Hamish Marshall.
“It’s both a strategic decision that we’ve got a great leader who is personable and outgoing and who we want Canadians to know. Canadians — it’s also an important part of their decision. People don’t just open up a policy book and read the platform.”
The party’s slogan this election is “Helping You Get Ahead,” and their underlying message is one of making Canadian life more affordable. The party has also put more effort into helping its own candidates.
In 2015, candidates groused about getting nothing from headquarters except talking points and a strict “don’t speak, even when spoken to” message. There would be no all-candidates debates, no interviews with local reporters, not even help figuring out how to order more signs.
This time there’s a totally different approach, candidates report.
Campaigns are receiving regular training and encouraged to return to the grassroots style of political engagement many Tories believe the party lost sight of in 2015. Now, when a candidate calls for help, the response is more likely to be: call me later and I will help you. Now, go knock on doors.
Arpan Khanna, the Conservative candidate in Brampton North outside Toronto, has taken that lesson to heart. He set a goal to knock on each of his riding’s doors five times between his nomination and election day, and has hit over 100,000. As a former Conservative staffer, he’s seen both the past and present approach to campaigning.
Khanna notes that in 2015, local Conservative campaigns may have knocked on three million doors total. This time, candidates hit that milestone in August.
“If you’re running for office, you should be at the doors,” he said.
“It’s a job interview. If they don’t see you, if they don’t ask you the questions, if you don’t get to know them, why should they hire you?”
The Brampton area is one of several zones where the Tories have firmly set their sights on victory. They aim to pick up seats as well in Atlantic Canada, the Prairies and the Lower Mainland of British Columbia.
Then there’s Quebec. Scheer’s lieutenant there, Alain Rayes, was tasked with improving the party’s profile, recruiting star candidates like an ex-Olympian and well-liked local politicians.
“For the first time, they don’t have placeholders,” said Carl Vallee, Harper’s former spokesman who is now a partner at Hatley Strategies, a public-affairs firm based in Montreal.
“They have real candidates.”
At the outset of the summer, party insiders and pundits routinely pegged the Conservatives as able to pick up anywhere between five and 10 Quebec seats.
But then word emerged in late August that Rayes was telling candidates no Conservative MPs would be allowed to bring forward any bills regarding abortion, which isn’t entirely the case. Scheer has said several times he’ll let his MPs speak up on issues that matter, though on abortion he’d personally oppose any effort to re-open the debate.
In March, polling firm Leger had Tory support in Quebec at 26 per cent of decided voters. As the abortion issue was being debated, the number had dipped to 23 per cent. Not a big change, but not in the direction the Conservatives would prefer.
Next door in Ontario, there’s another political problem: Doug Ford. His Progressive Conservative party’s chaotic approach to governing seems to be souring voters on the blue brand. Pollsters say when issues flare up with him, the federal Conservatives’ numbers slump. If Ford goes quiet, the fluctuation eases. Whether he’ll stay mum as promised during the federal campaign remains to be seen.
The Liberals also like to accuse Scheer of being like Ford. Sometimes they link him to U.S. President Donald Trump too. Tory strategists argue that they’re doing it because nothing sticks. That gives Scheer room, said Conservative strategist Melissa Lantsman, a vice-president with public-relations firm Hill+Knowlton Strategies.
“It’s an advantage for Scheer, because he’s going to spend the (campaign) in the limelight with equal coverage defining himself,” she said.
Keys to Conservative victory:
— Get people to know Andrew Scheer as a person
— Spend more time on the offensive against the Liberals than on the defensive about what the Harper Conservatives did
— Focus on the message that the Liberals don’t have the interests of everyday Canadian at heart by keeping up a grassroots campaign
— Avoid potential pitfalls like the social-issues debate in Quebec and Doug Ford’s record in Ontario
Stephanie Levitz, The Canadian Press