How Trudeau's foes could score an upset

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CALGARY — Justin Trudeau’s two biggest rivals barely saw a path to victory in the months before he called a summer election two years early: Covid-19 cases were down, Afghanistan was relatively stable and Trudeau’s Liberals were riding high in the polls.

The prime minister might now regret his decision. Covid numbers are rising, Afghanistan has collapsed and tracking polls show what appears to be a tightening race. That leaves unpopular Conservative leader Erin O'Toole and New Democrat Jagmeet Singh, the country’s most popular party leader, with an opportunity to exceed expectations on Sept. 20.

POLITICO spent two months before Sunday’s election call speaking to prominent Conservatives, largely in Ottawa and western Canada, about the party's chances. Many admitted, speaking only on background, to low expectations. Some were hoping only to limit the Liberals to a weakened minority — in which Tories would at least command influence in the House of Commons. Some feared a loss catastrophic enough to set off a civil war sparked by dispirited westerners.

Some Tories insist they're at a structural disadvantage. Unions with deep pockets buy punishing anti-Conservative ad campaigns. Progressive groups like Canada 2020 and LeadNow tap into broad networks of both influential and grassroots Canadians. They argue that mainstream media, most of all the publicly funded Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, are biased — with many outlets influenced by a C$595 million (US$464 million) package of tax breaks introduced in 2019.

That view is championed chiefly by Andrew Scheer, the former Tory leader who couldn't topple Trudeau in 2019 and lost his job because of it. He told POLITICO last week that he firmly believes those forces stack the deck against a Conservative win. And he attributes part of the success of so-called “big government” parties to a lack of cultural touchstones for young Canadians, most of whom came of age after the Cold War, that expose the dangers of socialism run amock.

Scheer says those fading memories, which have shifted the political landscape considerably since his first election in 2004, have paved the way for big spending. “The benefit of the doubt is with big government solutions in a way that I haven't experienced before,” he says. Scheer acknowledges that emergency relief spending was crucial to the pandemic response, but he's skeptical progressive parties will ever rein it in.

Others see a path to victory. Shakir Chambers is a Toronto-based consultant at Earnscliffe Strategy Group who developed policy on the campaign that made Doug Ford the premier of Ontario. He says the federal Tories can eke out a minority win — no one's expecting a majority — if they acknowledge three realities.

First, O’Toole is the most unpopular party leader in Canada. As they stand, those approval numbers predict a flop on Election Day. But O’Toole could play that to his advantage, says Chambers. “Expectations are exceptionally low. It might be very easy for him to outperform those expectations.”

Second, Chambers says the Tories cannot let O'Toole be defined as a bogeyman. The Liberals have already attacked O'Toole as a closet social conservative who either opposes socially progressive priorities or surrenders to his base.

Cabinet ministers are accusing the Tories of a hidden agenda, pointing to a party promise to allow doctors to opt out of performing abortions as proof O'Toole is either anti-abortion or unwilling to control his party's pro-lifers.

Public opinion polling has consistently shown broad support for access to abortion services, which are legal in Canada.

“You have to have responses for these things. And they have to be very, very convincing,” says Chambers.

O'Toole on Thursday tried to blunt the attack. “Let me be perfectly clear. As a pro-choice leader of this party, I will make sure that we defend the rights of women to make the choice for themselves with respect to their own health,” he said. “We will make sure abortion services are available from one ocean to the other.”

Third, attacking Trudeau isn't enough. O’Toole needs a vision: “What are you going to do? What are your answers to some of the most pressing challenges we have as a country?” Chambers says.

On just the second day of the federal campaign, O’Toole launched his full platform from a virtual studio at the Westin Hotel in Ottawa. The 163-page platform was designed to succeed where both Scheer and Stephen Harper failed. For starters, it includes a plan to fight climate change.

The leader describes his vision as a “5-point plan,” a callback to Harper’s “5 priorities.” Harper’s streamlined plan in 2006 has been credited for helping him defeat then-Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin. O'Toole's exhaustively detailed plan is nowhere near as succinct as Harper's pamphlet-sized promises.

The Conservative leader’s primary policy buckets pledge to bring back 1 million jobs within one year; to “clean up the mess” in Ottawa with a new anti-corruption law; to create a mental-health action plan; to prepare for future health crises by stockpiling health products and bolstering vaccine manufacturing; and to balance the federal budget within 10 years.

A party operative close to the platform’s development explained its early release, compared to a day-by-day drip of announcements for several weeks. “We're well aware of the fact that people don't know much about Erin or what he believes in. We also know that people have major anxieties about things like higher prices,” the official said. “But all of the bandwidth has been taken up by Covid-19. So we're happy to have the chance to talk about a number of different issues.”

Finally, Chambers says, the Conservatives could benefit from a strong NDP. “That can be very helpful for Conservatives in some of those tight three-way races where they can eke out a win and do better than people think.”

So there’s the formula for an O'Toole victory: Surpass low expectations, regain the political center, offer a clear plan and exploit a split on the left.

Enthusiasm deficit

New Democrats have one goal in this campaign: Win as many seats as possible.

The NDP knows it won’t win outright, but it might have the best shot at preventing a Trudeau romp: the party has a long history of fighting Liberals for the progressive vote.

The NDP’s high water mark in 2011, when they formed the Official Opposition for the first time, saw them win eight Toronto ridings. Trudeau has since outflanked them twice — in 2015 and 2019 — in those same left-of-center strongholds.

This time, New Democrats are banking on a modest breakthrough from Jagmeet Singh, by all accounts the most popular party leader in the country. Kathleen Monk, the principal at Monk + Associates, says Singh could outhustle Trudeau with energized young voters.

“There may be an enthusiasm deficit that the Liberals have to grapple with. Will there be people enthusiastically running to the ballot boxes or running to their mailboxes to cast their vote?” says Monk. “Whereas Jagmeet, there is more enthusiasm behind him.”

Singh meets those voters where they are on social media, she says, and they like what they see. The old political maxim says young people don't vote. But lots of them turned out for Trudeau in 2015. They're up for grabs.

In the campaign's first week, Singh never visited a district held by the NDP. As his party gained traction in early polls, the NDP leader has only stopped in places where he hopes to flip seats and expand his caucus.

Liberal worries

Back in 2019, the Liberals were fighting for reelection against an opposition that campaigned on ethics. To that point, Trudeau’s team had weathered a long list of scandals. The prime minister had vacationed on the Aga Khan’s private island over one Christmas holiday. His finance minister, Bill Morneau, had neglected to list a French villa on his mandatory submission to the federal ethics commissioner. Both episodes had gifted the opposition a persuasive argument that the folks in power couldn’t identify with the little guy.

Six months before the election, the Globe and Mail newspaper reported a bombshell: Trudeau had directed his justice minister, Jody Wilson-Raybould, to offer the Quebec-based engineering giant SNC-Lavalin a sweetheart get-out-of-jail-free card. The company was in deep trouble for accepting bribes in Libya and faced multiple charges under anti-corruption laws. Wilson-Raybould had apparently refused to do so, despite repeated overtures from the Prime Minister's Office.

When the SNC-Lavalin affair took hold in Ottawa, the fallout was significant. Wilson-Raybould quit Cabinet and was booted from caucus. Jane Philpott, one of Trudeau's most capable ministers, followed Wilson-Raybould out the door.

It was a lot of baggage to carry into an election. But there was more to come. In the middle of the campaign, Time magazine published an image of the prime minister wearing brown facepaint at a school function in spring of 2001. More images followed. No one saw it coming. Trudeau apologized, but refused to resign. In the end, voters didn't collectively punish him. Scheer's Conservatives won the popular vote on the strength of a disproportionately strong showing in western provinces, but the Liberals held power.

Greg MacEachern, a Liberal strategist who is also senior vice president of government relations at Proof Strategies, says every party will build a campaign around its own priorities and messages — but sometimes voters go a different way that catches everyone off-guard.

“We say the phrase ‘elections matter' so much that it runs the risk of being cliché,” he says. “But like a lot of clichés, there is a huge element of truth, at the heart of it.”

MacEachern pointed to a stirring example of an election turning on a dime. Back in 2015, the wrenching photo of Alan Kurdi, a Syrian refugee whose body was discovered on a beach in Turkey, made that humanitarian crisis a serious issue. At the time, Harper's government took a serious credibility hit and Trudeau's Liberals promised to bring 25,000 Syrians to Canada.

Trudeau, mired in third place at the time, ended up winning the election. But this year, he's the guy with a record to defend. Afghanistan is collapsing, British Columbia is on fire, and Covid cases are rising fast in some parts of the country. This is no slam dunk.

Andy Blatchford contributed to this report.

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