When is a by-election not just a by-election? When there’s a wider strategy at play.
Last night, Conservative candidate Richard Martel handily won the riding of Chicoutimi-Le Fjord, receiving 53% of the vote, to the Liberals’ Lina Boivin with 29%. The NDP finished a distant third with 9% of the vote and the Bloc received just 5%.
This was a major reversal from 2015 where Liberal candidate Denis Lemieux narrowly defeated incumbent NDP MP Dany Morin by 600 votes, while the Conservative candidate finished fourth with only 16% of the vote.
Some may be scratching their heads as to why Scheer and the Conservatives won a resounding victory last night after a fourth-place finish in 2015. In addition, in 2017 the party lost two by-elections in held seats, including Denis Lebel’s seat in Lac-Saint-Jean, a Conservative stronghold.
It would be easy to suggest that the victory was simply due to running a well-known local candidate who was a major junior hockey coach in Chicoutimi. But that would ignore the groundwork that Scheer and his team are laying in Quebec that they believe will pay off in 2019.
Conservative Strategy Prior to By-Election Day
First, unlike the Liberals who waited till early May to nominate their candidate, Martel was nominated in December, giving the Conservatives a five-month head start.
Second, Scheer’s deputy Chief of Staff (now Acting Chief) Marc-Andre Leclerc clearly was a major force in driving the campaign and organization, as well as all twelve Conservative MPs in Quebec who spent a lot of time in the region. Leclerc also played a decisive role in the 2017 Conservative Leadership, which helped to ensure Scheer narrowly defeated Maxime Bernier on the last ballot.
Third, the Conservatives have been upping their presence in Quebec in recent months. In May, a large regional congress was successfully held in Saint-Hyacinthe where former Bloc Quebecois leader Michel Gauthier announced he was joining the Conservatives, signaling to disaffected Bloc members fed up with internal divisions that there was an option open to soft nationalists. Scheer’s performance on Tout le monde en parle in May also demonstrated that he could operate in his second language.
The Bernier Effect and Supply Management
Over the course of the campaign, we also saw two flare-ups between former leadership candidate Maxime Bernier and Scheer. In April, Bernier said that he was writing a book about his policy prescriptions, including his opposition to supply management. The book accused Scheer of relying on “fake Conservatives” to win the leadership. This was extremely divisive within the Conservative caucus, with a majority of MPs expressing their displeasure to Bernier for making his views public, especially at the time of the by-election in a riding where supply management is an issue.
Last week (and after promising not to publish his book), he republished the chapter opposing supply management on his website. This led Scheer to remove Bernier from his role as critic for innovation (or as the Conservatives style them, “shadow ministers”), causing some supporters to express their displeasure at his removal. Yet, given how much time and effort Scheer and his team put into the by-election, there should be little surprise that the reaction to Bernier and his views on supply management was swift.
The Competition in Chicoutimi
Liberals were not about to give up Chicoutimi-Le Fjord without a fight. In the last two months, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and a variety of Liberal cabinet ministers announced over $65 million in public spending, hoping to demonstrate their commitment to the riding and underline the point that being on the winning team provides results for residents. In fact, the Liberal vote only slightly decreased by less than 2%, suggesting that they remain a factor in the region.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh also campaigned in the riding on occasion but going from a very close second to a distant third in a riding the NDP recently held will certainly give his team pause on a Quebec strategy. This is especially true considering former leader Thomas Mulcair’s resignation which will cause a by-election in Outremont. It is worth noting that the NDP vote decrease of 21% went exclusively to the Conservatives.
As for the Bloc Quebecois, the internal turmoil of the last few months in which the elected caucus split into two warring camps and leader Martine Ouellet was forced to resign certainly had no positive impact. A 15% drop in vote since 2015, which also went to the Conservatives will be another blow to the Bloc.
So, while a by-election can sometimes be just a by-election, it’s clear that Andrew Scheer and the Conservatives used Chicoutimi as a test run for their 2019 Quebec election strategy. Given that the Liberals have signaled that they believe a strong Quebec campaign will form a key part of their national re-election strategy, the battle for 2019 has just begun.
Garry Keller is a Vice President with StrategyCorp. He served as Chief of Staff to Rona Ambrose during her time as Leader of the Opposition, as well as in a number of senior roles during the Conservative Government from 2006-2015.