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This was the moment that Conservative insiders knew Erin O’Toole would lose the election

This was the moment that Conservative insiders knew Erin O’Toole would lose the election
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OTTAWA — It’s two days before the election call and Erin O’Toole’s campaign team is scrambling.

Caught off guard by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s decision to make COVID-19 vaccinations mandatory for Canadian public servants and air travellers, O’Toole’s inner circle will spend the final days before the federal election campaign begins crafting the Conservative response.

Complicating the effort is the fact that some Conservative MPs and candidates flatly refuse to tell the party leadership whether or not they’ve been vaccinated.

If O’Toole endorsed mandatory vaccinations, he wouldn’t just face outrage from a party base that takes individual choice seriously — he’d also risk having his own candidates offside with the policy, and have to cut them loose or face a constant barrage of questions about why he was still allowing them to run.

It wouldn’t be the first time O’Toole and his team would have to balance the deeply held principles of the Conservative Party of Canada against their more centrist strategy to win new voters over to the cause. Nor would it be the last time during Canada’s 44th general election campaign.

Those close to O’Toole still feel that their eventual response — to strongly encourage vaccinations, but to not make them mandatory so long as the unvaccinated take daily rapid tests — neutralized the issue as a political wedge.

But that decision — and many more — will be under intense scrutiny within the Conservative movement as the party comes to grips with a third straight loss at the polls.

Since Monday’s election, the Star has spoken to more than 30 party activists, returning members of Parliament, failed candidates, former and current party operatives, and senior members of O’Toole’s campaign team. Most would only agree to speak on the condition they not be named.

The narratives that emerged vary dramatically, but there is real anger within the Tory caucus and the broader movement directed at O’Toole and his senior leadership team. The bargain that O’Toole made with the party was that his centrist strategy would win over voters in Ontario and Eastern Canada. That didn’t happen.

Why not?

Public polls heading into the election had the Liberals with a considerable lead, but numerous Conservative campaign sources told the Star they didn’t believe them. Give their guy a chance to get out in front of the public, they said, and they could narrow the gap.

They were ready to fight.

Putting out their platform on the first full day of the campaign is the element of the Tories’ election effort even their rivals have credited as their smartest tactical move.

As Justin Trudeau struggled to explain why he had even called an election, and got knocked off message by the situation in Afghanistan, the Tories were able to look sure-footed and also drive the early election narrative.

They had a plan, and O’Toole would spend the next 35 days reminding voters of that.

Economic issues were the Conservatives’ bread and butter. If they could keep the focus on them, they felt they could win the argument about how Canada should recover from COVID-19.

“COVID was a Liberal issue, like climate change. They owned it,” said one senior campaign staffer. “We own fiscal responsibility and economic growth.”

A year earlier, as O’Toole’s team members began to turn their minds to the next election, their biggest fear was they’d have to fight a COVID-19 campaign.

There were two parts to that fear: the country would be so locked down by pandemic restrictions that a traditional leader’s tour would not be possible, and that there was no way they could defeat the Liberals on that issue alone.

They’d find themselves fighting on that front in the latter half of the campaign.

But the first part they thought they’d solved, having scoured downtown Ottawa for a space to set up as a campaign studio for the purposes of an entirely virtual campaign.

Despite the cost, many in the party thought it was a stroke of genius as a “just-in-case” option.

But, the studio approach lent a cold and distant vibe to a campaign branding itself with the image of a down-to-earth family man.

Only a few days each week, O’Toole would head out on the stump, his events a mixed bag of anonymous hotel backdrops and pretty outdoor settings.

While those gave a sense of place and occasion, he’d rarely even name the local candidates standing behind him, breeding resentment among those who found themselves having to beg for photos to use on their own campaign literature.

When O’Toole did venture out, he’d aim for swing ridings.

While the Tories needed another 55 seats for a majority, in reality they thought only about three dozen were winnable. Among their targets were seats around Markham, Ont. and the suburban voters who O’Toole promised he’d deliver with his centrist approach on climate change, along with policies on affordable housing.

The race in Aurora-Oak Ridges-Richmond Hill was typical of what went wrong for the Conservatives.

Leona Alleslev, the Conservative candidate in the riding, was first elected there as a Liberal in 2015, crossed the floor in 2018 and then won the riding for the Conservatives in 2019.

This time, she lost.

The Liberals were revved up and ready to go on day one, Alleslev told the Star, while she played catch up, pivoting into campaign mode.

Still, she thought her chances were good. At doorsteps, she was picking up a lot of anger at the Liberals and a willingness among voters to listen to her pitch.

Until the Liberals began stepping all over it.

Her rival’s campaign distributed letters branding Alleslev and the Tories as climate-change deniers. A parade of Liberal cabinet ministers, and Trudeau himself, showed up to campaign for the seat. And then came the gun issue.

The Liberals have gone after the Tories on firearms policy for decades; that they would again came as no surprise.

But this time, there was something different: pictures of weapons used in the deadliest mass shootings in North America were being plastered on the front pages of newspapers, alongside accusations that an O’Toole government would legalize them.

The source of the claim was a paragraph in the platform committing to a repeal of a cabinet order from May 2020 that banned some 1,500 “assault-style” weapons.

The issue leapt to the fore when Trudeau focused on that promise during the first French-language leaders’ debate, and O’Toole tried to argue he wouldn’t lift a ban on assault rifles.

Trudeau pointed to page 90 of the platform, O’Toole tried to slough it off but then spent the next week tying himself and his campaign in knots over which guns he would or wouldn’t ban, when and why.

The gun lobby was mad. The base was mad. The voters in urban centres, who supported tougher gun laws — and who the Tories were trying to win over — were confused.

“His team let him down on that one,” said one veteran Conservative strategist.

Alleslev felt the sting at the doors. Then it got worse.

Well before the election, the Canadian Coalition for Firearm Rights planned a “truth tour” in soft Liberal ridings to encourage people to vote Conservative, and support a platform that focused on gun crime, not guns.

It also spent $152,000 on TV and radio ads in the service of its key message: those who own guns legally are not the source of rising rates of gun violence.

“Most Canadians have no knowledge or understanding of this complex issue,” the CCFR’s Tracey Wilson told the Star.

“Gun bans are sexy for politicians like Trudeau, desperate to create a boogeyman.”

Among the ridings the CCFR visited: Aurora-Oak Ridges-Richmond Hill. Alleslev said the organization didn’t tell her it was coming, and its efforts gave the Liberals a local line of attack on guns.

So, between trying to insist her party had a climate-change plan and wasn’t going to legalize assault weapons, and fending off all the high-profile Liberals, she found herself constantly on the defensive.

The national campaign “may not have realized, I certainly didn’t realize, that I was fighting a local and national campaign,” she said.

Alleslev also faced whispers about a previous campaign, which she declined to speak about with the Star.

In the 2020 Conservative leadership race, she supported O’Toole’s main rival, Peter MacKay.

Given she once was a Liberal, O’Toole’s leadership campaign jumped on that to bolster their argument MacKay was nothing more than Liberal-lite.

An email to that effect circulated by O’Toole’s campaign manager during the leadership race — the same man who ran this election campaign — made the rounds among People’s Party of Canada supporters in the riding as part of their case that voting O’Toole was akin to voting for Trudeau.

The PPC’s rise from the fringe to front pages also caught the Tories off guard. Maxime Bernier’s splinter party was dismissed as a far-right rump after 2019, but the COVID-19 pandemic provided it an opening.

Bernier piggybacked on the anger and frustration over public-health measures like lockdowns, rage at Trudeau’s mandatory vaccination policy, and the dissatisfaction of some “true blue” Conservatives with O’Toole’s direction.

The PPC saw an opportunity in the protests that dogged Trudeau on the campaign trail. Trudeau noted that while at first the protests appeared organic, by the time he had gravel thrown his way at a London campaign stop, more and more of the protesters were wearing PPC purple.

In the view of some insiders, the Tories waited too long to try to keep the PPC at bay. In the final days of the campaign, the party started running hyper-targeted social media ads proclaiming that a vote for anyone but a Conservative was a vote for Trudeau.

A senior source on O’Toole’s campaign said that while it’s simplistic to suggest PPC voters would otherwise vote Conservative, they undoubtedly cost O’Toole a “handful” of seats across the country.

“We have to do the full analysis and see where these voters were,” the source said.

But, the source added, “I do think (for) the PPC, this is a blip election. It was vaccines and COVID that really fed into this.”

Also troubling was the collapse in Green party support, limiting voters’ options on the left in more than 80 ridings with no Green candidate.

The two variables made the outcome hard to model — would PPC voters actually show up, don a mask and vote? Would Greens flock to the Liberals or the NDP?

One campaign source told the Star that they largely stuck to the plan mapped out in the lead-up to the election, but that there were two significant pivot points.

The first came early, when the Tories jumped on the fact that in July, Canada had seen its largest increase in the inflation rate since May 2011. Focus groups had been telling them the cost of living was a key issue, and the Tories pounced.

“There is a cost of living crisis right now,” O’Toole told supporters on the campaign trail.

“The cost of food? Going up. The cost of clothes for your kids’ clothes in back-to-school time? Going up. The cost of fuel for farming families, for commuting families? Going up.”
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