OTTAWA—On Thursday, Oct. 17, Andrew Scheer had boldly and publicly boasted the Conservatives’ internal polling suggested they were in a good position to win the most seats. Maybe even a majority.
By the following Monday, Scheer’s team knew they had lost the election before the votes were even counted.
The first sense the Scheer campaign had that something was going wrong came two days before the vote.
They were tracking the “enthusiasm gap” of Canadian voters — how eager the parties’ supporters were to vote. On the Saturday before the election, Conservative enthusiasm had not changed. Liberal enthusiasm had shot up — way up.
It was a worrying sign for the people around Scheer. The Conservatives were counting on a Liberal vote depressed by Canadians’ frustration with Justin Trudeau’s party.
But it was just one data point. It wasn’t yet clear then that it would become a trend that would boost the Liberal vote in Ontario and dash Scheer’s hopes for gains in the GTA and, with them, his chances for becoming prime minister.
Hamish Marshall, Scheer’s long-time friend and campaign manager, said the campaign expected to have the advantage over the Liberals in voter turnout. That didn’t materialize, and he knew by Monday afternoon the Conservatives would not win the most seats.
“It was obviously disappointing. And you wait for the results to come in and hope against hope that the trends you’re seeing and the numbers are not what they actually are,” Marshall said, of the gap in time between the moment he knew they’d lost and when the votes were counted.
Since Monday’s vote, Scheer and his team have faced largely anonymous but intense criticism from within the Conservative family about the failures of his campaign. The anger is visceral in Tory circles.
One Scheer supporter dismissed this as “Tory Syndrome” — the cycle of disappointing election results that lead to internal fighting, which in turn leads to a lack of focus on the next election and more disappointing results.
Scheer’s private detractors are many, and loud, while his public defenders are relatively few. Part of the anger is directed at Scheer himself, part at his tight-knit inner circle of advisers, and much of it born from the high expectations the Conservatives had heading into the 2019 campaign.
The Liberals had been mired in the SNC-Lavalin scandal since February, and Trudeau himself had just been found to have broken ethics rules — for the second time — on the eve of the election. The governing party was tanking in western Canada, had lost a handful of popular incumbents in eastern Canada, and province after province was electing conservative governments — including in Ontario, where Doug Ford had swept out the unpopular Liberal incumbents in a landslide only a year before.
Scheer still had his doubters, particularly in some of the highest levels of the party. But the Liberals had taken so many body blows that the election was seen as winnable by Conservative strategists.
Scheer’s team laid out their plan. They’d need to pick up seats in Atlantic Canada — at least five or six, but optimistically closer to 10 — and make gains in Quebec, where they’d target seats in the regions around Quebec City and in central Quebec. They hoped for a strong showing in B.C. and could rely on the Conservative heartland of Alberta and Saskatchewan.
But Scheer’s team knew that without the exurban and suburban ridings in the GTA, their course to power became very difficult to plot.
Marshall planned each phase of the campaign and was determined to stick to the script. It’s a personality trait, his friend Matthew John explained to Maclean’s magazine before the campaign began.
“He’s got a plan. He’s going to be disciplined and stick to that plan,” John said.
The first real disruption came — true to provincial character — from Quebec. A senior Scheer strategist said the rise of the Bloc Québécois, led by the strong personal performance of leader Yves-François Blanchet, forced the Conservatives to shift from trying to pick up seats to trying to save what ridings they could.
“There was various people at the end predicting we could go down to four or five (seats),” the insider, who discussed internal strategy on the condition they not be named, told the Star. “We very much focused on holding what we can and maybe going for one or two other gains, but no longer swinging for the fences.”
Rather than gain ground in the province, Scheer, who launched his campaign in Trois-Rivières on Sept. 11 and spent significant time and resources trying to woo Quebec voters, lost two seats.
“I was hearing from high-level people within the campaign that they could pick up five seats in Quebec. Like, they were just completely out of touch with reality,” said one well-placed Conservative source.
Blanchet and the Bloc’s rise explains only some of what happened. Scheer was an easy target for his opponents given his history of social conservatism. His past opposition to same-sex marriage and the questions about his personal beliefs on abortion access made him easy to smear in the socially progressive province.
The same was true in Ontario.
“We’re trying to win in Ontario and he’s afraid to actually say what his real views are on gay marriage?” said one plugged-in Tory, granted anonymity to discuss internal party matters.
“He’s running from these questions.”
Other Conservatives took issue with the campaign’s communications strategy, geared almost exclusively toward “affordability” issues.
“I was knocking on doors in a suburban 905 riding, and our entire pitch was about affordability, and I suddenly realized that every single door I was knocking on opened up into a million-dollar home,” one Conservative activist told TVO this week.
“I’m not saying affordability isn’t a problem in Toronto. But as I went from million-dollar house to million-dollar house, I started to worry that this narrative just wasn’t going to work in the Toronto area the way it would in Calgary.”
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The Conservatives, though, did roughly as well in vote count in Ontario as Ford’s Progressive Conservatives in the 2018 provincial campaign. Last year, Ford formed a majority government with support from 2.33 million Ontarian voters. The Conservatives pulled 2.25 million votes in the province, but only managed to pick up 36 seats to the Liberals’ 79.
Ford was running against a deeply unpopular Liberal government that had been in power for more than a decade, with a strong NDP pulling progressive votes away from the ruling party.
Scheer was running against Trudeau, damaged but still only four years removed from his historic majority win, with Jagmeet Singh’s New Democrats in full save-the-furniture mode.
An Ontario strategy of waiting until Trudeau is unpopular enough is unlikely to satisfy Scheer’s critics.
“You can’t just count on Trudeau defeating himself … I mean, really, can you imagine a campaign that starts on day one with a story about obstructing a RCMP investigation and halfway through lands multiple blackface photos?” said one Conservative source in western Canada.
“The fact that we couldn’t take advantage of that, it really pisses off a lot Conservatives and they blame Scheer and his campaign, and I don’t think they distinguish between the two but I think they should.”
The Conservatives have already begun a comprehensive review of what went wrong for them in this election. That review is expected to be released when Tory faithful gather in Toronto in April at a convention where members will decide whether to hold a leadership review.
The timing and location work against Scheer. It’s no secret that Ford’s camp is angry the Conservative leader not only distanced himself from the premier but seemingly couldn’t bring himself to utter Ford’s name while campaigning in Ford’s backyard.
Unlike a coastal convention, Toronto is easier and comparatively cheap to get to from anywhere in the country so disaffected Tories from the Atlantic provinces, Quebec and Ontario are likely to have a strong presence.
Scheer appears to have doubters not just among the Toronto Conservatives but also among the social conservative set. The Campaign Life Coalition released a post-election briefing criticizing Scheer for failing to defend their stance on abortion and same-sex marriage.
But Scheer still controls the party apparatus, and the people organizing the convention are his employees. Unless the public pressure ratchets up — or a challenger emerges — Scheer and his team have some advantages.
Lisa Raitt, the now ex-MP for Milton, is one of Scheer’s few public defenders. Well-liked in Ottawa circles, Raitt said the rookie leader should be allowed to lead the party into the next election.
“I do believe that he deserves another shot,” said Raitt, who served as Scheer’s deputy leader.
“I understand that there’s going to be lots of discussion, given that we do have this vote coming up in April. But there’s a long time between now and April … For him right now, (it’s doing) the work associated with giving comfort to the members across the country.”
According to Conservatives, that work includes reaching out to branches of the party that feel left out by Scheer and his team, recognizing and dealing with the issue of his social conservative record, and developing a pitch that can speak to Ontario.
Senior figures in the party, including former prime minister Stephen Harper, have urged the agitators to take a breath and allow the party to conduct its review.
But frustration in the Conservative family runs deep.
“What do they need to do now? I don’t think there’s anything they can do now,” said one insider. “I think it’s too late.”