This weekend, Ontario’s Progressive Conservatives will file into an Ottawa hotel room and ask the question that’s become a near obsession since the 2007 election: How do we win again?
Expectations are high. But armed with a new leader and a new strategy, the answer could be less revolutionary than they think. The key to a Conservative win in the upcoming provincial election are the “switchers” – the working-class and middle-class voters who helped propel their federal cousins to power in Ottawa, senior Tories say.
“Federally, we did a lot of work on laying out who absolutely doesn’t vote for us, who absolutely does vote for us,” said one top adviser.
“We push them out and the secret for us is the people in the middle. … We know who they are and we know where they live, and we hope we know what it is they want.”
Tapping into the concerns of those voters – particularly in key Toronto ridings that include suburban Etobicoke, Scarborough and North York – will propel the party to electoral victory, they argue.
“Switchers” are worried about whether they’ll be able to pay their bills, whether their kids will get a good education or find a job, whether their elderly parents will get the health care they need.
“People out there … they’re not thinking Liberal versus Conservative,” said the adviser.
“What they know is that they can’t afford it anymore. We see it. We see it when we talk to people, we see it in our research. It’s everywhere. They don’t have to be Conservative believers. All we have to do is tap into what they already feel.”
It’s why the Conservatives have been hammering the same message – almost ad nauseam – about tax hikes, government waste and runaway spending, while positioning leader Tim Hudak, a 42-year-old dad from the small Niagara town of Fort Erie, as the champion of those middle-class voters.
It won’t be easy to unseat Premier Dalton McGuinty, whose successful command of the political centre fuelled his party’s second majority. And the Liberals are already girding for a fight, using Hudak’s past as an acolyte of former premier Mike Harris and his neo-conservative Common Sense Revolution as rhetorical ammunition.
“We can’t go out and say, ‘Dalton McGuinty is a really bad, mean guy.’ People don’t in their gut think that’s true. What they think is that he tries really hard and he doesn’t always quite make it,” says one Tory insider.
But voters also feel that trying just isn’t good enough anymore, they say. And if you offer something better, they’ll take it.
“What we learned federally is you have to understand your voters and what they think, because you have to sell them something that they already believe,” says one insider.
“It was the biggest lesson we learned and it’s why Stephen Harper has been so successful.”
Hudak’s team started laying the groundwork for their strategy not long after he took over as Opposition leader last July.
There have been major changes behind the scenes, including the addition of Lynette Corbett, a lawyer who worked for two federal ministers, as chief of staff and Carrie Kormos, Hudak’s childhood friend and former staffer, as principal secretary. Mark Spiro, a political operative who’s helped organize several Conservative campaigns, has signed on manage the Tories’ 2011 campaign.
Efforts have been also made to recruit new talent as well as centralize planning and strategy.
Many of the top Tory advisers have worked in Ottawa and the federal Conservative war rooms. Others have been recruited from the private sector, and one from the Pentagon. Most have taken significant pay cuts and work 12-hour days that start at the crack of dawn.
“We plan to win in 2011. We don’t consider this a warm-up run for 2015,” said one senior Tory.
The army of researchers that helped expose the spending scandal at eHealth has been converted into the “department of strategy,” which devises a central plan of attack and lays out priorities to guide the caucus.
Another significant change is the approach to question period. Gone are the days when staff would scour the morning newspapers for stories to throw at the government in the legislature. The objective now is to “drive” the news by asking about issues that aren’t on anyone’s radar, which also allows Hudak’s team to plan several weeks in advance.
As one senior adviser puts it: “What happens at Queen’s Park doesn’t win us elections.”
Hudak, a 14-year veteran of the legislature, also spends most of his time travelling, a move designed to bolster his image outside Queen’s Park. Caucus members, meanwhile, have been assigned “buddy” seats close to their ridings and asked to roll out the party’s message there.
The Conservatives have taken a far more aggressive approach under Hudak than their previous leader John Tory, but they’ve failed to capitalize on it, said one expert.
Recent polls suggest that McGuinty’s approval ratings are dipping, but Hudak hasn’t picked up those points, said David Docherty, a politics professor at Wilfrid Laurier University.
“I think the Conservatives thus far have done a pretty good job of convincing Ontarians why not to vote for the Liberals. They have not done a good job of telling Ontarians why they should vote for them,” he said.
“The next task for Mr. Hudak is to put out a fairly detailed policy platform that would give Ontarians a reason to vote for the Conservative party, and he hasn’t done that yet.”
That won’t happen this weekend, when an expected 1,200 Conservatives gather in Ottawa for the party’s annual general meeting.
Policy is a tricky business with the Conservatives. Party members must be widely consulted through a long winding process that starts with grassroots groups before any policies adopted.
“No doubt, time is tight,” said Hudak. “You’re basically into the campaign in the summer of 2011. Nonetheless, I’m enjoying it.”