An electoral breakthrough in Quebec has for decades been a goal of the modern Conservatives, who are gathering in the province’s capital this weekend for the first party convention under leader Pierre Poilievre.
But with Poilievre riding high in the national polls, are gains in Quebec still a necessary part of a winning Conservative campaign?
“The fact of the matter is, if you took Quebec out of Canada … Conservatives would win almost every single election,” said Fred DeLorey, who was former CPC leader Erin O’Toole’s campaign manager in 2021.
In an interview with host Catherine Cullen on CBC’s The House, DeLorey said it would be difficult to form a government when Conservatives are competitive in just five or 10 ridings in Canada’s second biggest province.
Since the creation of the modern Conservative party under Stephen Harper, the Tories have struggled to maintain double-digit seat numbers in Quebec. The party won 10 seats in the 2021 election, mostly in the area around Quebec City.
While he said he’d still be pushing for a breakthrough, DeLorey told host Catherine Cullen that a big gain of seats in Quebec isn’t the only path to victory.
“History tells us that we don’t always have to do that to win,” he said. “If you go back to 2011 — the last time the Conservatives won a majority government, or an election at all — we did it without Quebec.”
Pollster Christian Bourque agrees that, mathematically, the Conservatives may not need Quebec because of their dominance in Western Canada.
“And right now, for the first time since [Poilievre] became leader of the Conservatives, he’s actually showing that he’s in seat-gained territory in Ontario,” the Leger executive said.
“The problem with Quebec is [it’s] the difference between a minority Conservative government and a majority Conservative government.”
Bourque noted that while the Conservatives hold a commanding national lead, they remain a distant third in Quebec.
The keys to winning in Quebec
Baie-Comeau, Que., native Brian Mulroney led the Progressive Conservatives to two huge majority wins in 1984 and 1988 that saw the party nearly sweep the province.
But after the PCs were almost wiped out in 1993 — with Jean Charest the last MP standing in Sherbrooke — the PCs and successor Conservative Party of Canada have struggled to expand beyond their Quebec City beachhead.
Dimitri Soudas, former director of communications for Stephen Harper, said the Conservatives under Harper kept their efforts targeted at the areas around the capital.
“[Harper] went back to Quebec City during [Winter Carnival] so many times that he and Bonhomme were on a first-name basis,” Soudas told Cullen.
But despite the jump to 10 seats in the 2006 election — which Soudas described as historic gain under a non-Quebecois leader — the party struggled to make headway. And Bourque told The House Conservatives may have missed a crucial opportunity early in the Harper era.
The 2006 election marked the start of a softening in support for the Bloc Québécois, Bourque said. And while many thought in the lead-up to the 2008 election that the Conservatives could achieve a breakthrough in Quebec, the Harper government’s decision to cut $45 million from arts and culture programs soured that opportunity, he said.
“Cultural cuts, as they were called back then, sort of meant the end of Conservative support in the province. It sort of revived the Bloc vote,” Bourque said.
“I will say to this day there were genuinely not serious cuts in culture. But we lost the communications battle and in politics, the reality is that perception is reality,” Soudas said.
Bourque said that only an erosion of Bloc support could allow the Conservatives to make a real breakthrough — something he doesn’t see happening right now.
“That’s why there’s this sort of stalemate right now on the Conservative numbers,” he said.
DeLorey said it’s proven to be difficult to shift Quebecers away from their comfort zone with the Bloc. Even the endorsement of a popular premier like Francois Legault did not substantially boost Erin O’Toole’s fortunes in 2021.
But Soudas argued that Poilievre has two key advantages not enjoyed by previous Conservative leaders: his francophone last name and his strong command of the language.
He also cited a major series of ads that included a French voiceover by Poilievre’s wife, Anaida, who grew up in Montreal.
Soudas said he believes “Quebecers vote with their heart” and Poilievre has a shot to make a serious dent if he is able to connect with Quebecers.
“He has all the ingredients to win more than 10 seats in the province of Quebec.”
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