Conservatives return as federalist alternative to Bloc

And the Liberals' third-place showing across the country is bad news for them

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The Gazette, Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Two story lines emerge from Monday's by-elections, both of them consequential. The first is the Conservatives taking a seat from the Bloc, which is a game-changer. And the second is the Liberals finishing third in all four ridings, in both English and French-speaking Canada, and on both coasts as well as in urban and rural Quebec.

Montmagny-L'Islet-Kamouraska-Rivière-du-Loup has been a Bloc stronghold in the six general elections since 1993. In last year's general vote, the Bloc won it by 15 points over the Conservatives.

On Monday night, Conservative candidate Bernard Généreux, the outgoing mayor of La Pocatière, scored a major breakthrough, winning the by-election not by a little but relatively by a lot - five points, 42.7 to 37.7 per cent over the Bloc's Nancy Gagnon. This gives the Conservatives their ninth seat in the Quebec City region and east, and is a significant beachhead for further breakthroughs in eastern Quebec.

How the Conservatives did it is a story of an outstanding organization on the ground. It's also a story of Stephen Harper getting by with a little help from his friends - the Quebec Liberals. Finally, it's a story of Harper and the Conservatives slowly getting their game back over the last six months, following their disastrous flameout over "the separatist coalition" in the parliamentary crisis of a year ago. Conservative fortunes in Quebec bottomed out in April, when Harper's office put it out that Brian Mulroney was no longer a member of a party he had twice led to majority territory with landslides in Quebec.

It might not have been Harper's worst moment as prime minister, but it was certainly the most mean-spirited, and it took the Tories down to the low teens in voting intention in Quebec.

For the brief season of his honeymoon with voters last spring, Michael Ignatieff actually led the Bloc by five points in a CROP poll in May. Going into the summer, the Liberals had clearly traded places with the Conservatives as the competitive federalist party in the 50-seat battleground outside Montreal known as the Rest of Quebec.

But then Ignatieff virtually disappeared over the summer while the Conservatives gradually built a firewall around the Quebec City region - making nearly all their announcements there over the summer. Then in September, Harper sent his wife, most of his cabinet and a gracious video message from himself to a Montreal event celebrating the 25th anniversary of Mulroney's 1984 landslide. The 1,500 people at the rally sent a message of a united party and served as an impressive show of strength at the very moment the Liberals were tearing themselves apart over their Quebec organization being run by Iggy's Toronto mafia.

Then Harper spent an entire day with Max Bernier in Beauce, a riding near Rivière-du-Loup. By tradition, prime ministers don't campaign in by-elections, but this was close enough. And the message, that Bernier had been forgiven for his biker-moll period, was well received in a part of the province where Bernier is highly popular. It also underscored a redemptive theme that plays well in Quebec.

And then the Big Red Machine, with the clear approval of Jean Charest, got on board. There are three provincial seats in the federal riding, all of them now held by the Liberals, all of whom supported Genereux, who has his own connections to the Quebec Liberals. If Harper didn't phone Charest yesterday to thank him for his help, there was a name missing from his call sheet.

And here's one of the sub-plots of the story. The provincial riding of Rivière-du-Loup was formerly held by Mario Dumont, and the remnants of his organization might have been available to the Conservatives. But that would have sent the wrong message to the Quebec Liberals, and in any event the ADQ is in the process of imploding. The ADQ sympathizers in Harper's close entourage would do well not to take any credit for this win.

On the ground there were lead organizers who were the heroes of the piece, and both of them come out of Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon's campaign organization in the Gatineau region. Ghyslain Maltais, a former member of the legislature from the Bourassa years, knows what it's like fighting tough elections on the North Shore, and was the bridge to the Quebec Liberals. And Joseph Soares, a young staffer who formerly ran the Quebec desk in Harper's office, ran the Get Out the Vote (GOTV) operation in which the Conservatives kicked the Bloc's butt.

As for the federal Liberals, Monday was a bad day at the office.

Never mind that the Liberals finished third or worse in three of these four ridings in last October's general election, and a distant second in the fourth one. The point is that that the Liberals haven't done anything to raise their game since then. They were third in English, third in French, third in the east and third in the west.

Well, maybe on Monday they made the bottom.

For the Liberal leader, it was an Iggynominious loss.

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