MONTREAL – Federal Conservatives are capping off their summer with a pre-electoral push in Quebec, a charm campaign to help the party rebound in what has proven to be challenging terrain.
Denis Lebel, the prime minister’s Quebec lieutenant, is banking on his 12-day “End of Summer Tour” to court a province where the Conservatives hold only five seats and recent polls have suggested they trail the New Democrats, Liberals and Bloc Quebecois in popular support.
Even though the next election could be more than a year away, Lebel has been shaking hands and delivering speeches across the province on a trek that was to wrap up Thursday in Quebec City.
“We wanted to be sure that everybody in Quebec understands that Quebec is very important for our government,” Lebel told a crowd of about 100 supporters at a rally this week in Montreal’s Mount Royal riding, a district long coveted by the Conservatives.
“The End of Summer Tour is for us to make political gains. We have worked very hard to make political gains in Quebec, everywhere, in all regions.”
He told the audience that the drive started months before he kicked off his tour, with 12 cabinet ministers from outside the province paying visits to Quebec since April.
Citizenship and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander as well as Lynne Yelich, junior minister responsible for consular affairs, accompanied Lebel at the Mount Royal event.
A Leger poll taken in June found the Conservatives had the support of only 12 per cent of Quebecers, compared with 34 per cent for both the NDP and Liberals and 17 per cent for the Bloc.
Polls conducted more recently suggest the Liberals have gained ground in regions like Ontario and the Maritimes at the expense of the Tories, which could make additional wins in Quebec even more important.
“If the Tories lose seats elsewhere, they’re going to have to find places to make those up,” said David Coletto, chief executive officer of research company Abacus Data.
“I think in their mind if they can regain five seats in Quebec … that probably can at least offset what will likely be some losses in Atlantic Canada and other parts of the country.”
But Coletto said the Tories’ growth potential in Quebec appears limited, particularly since recent surveys have found its support has hovered between 12 and 20 per cent — similar to its level after the 2011 election.
Even the turmoil within the Bloc, now reduced to two MPs, could hurt the Conservatives’ chances of a turnaround, he added.
Recent data from his firm has suggested that only 11 per cent of Bloc voters have a positive view of Harper, 50 per cent have a favourable view of NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair and 27 per cent hold a positive view of Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau.
In 2011, the Conservatives lost six of the 11 ridings they held in Quebec following a surge in popularity of the NDP and then-leader Jack Layton. Harper cabinet ministers Lawrence Cannon, Jean-Pierre Blackburn and Josee Verner were all defeated.
The Quebec City region, where the Conservatives lost three seats in 2011, would likely be a focal point of any Tory revival in the province.
To help replenish Tory coffers, a party source says the Conservatives are organizing a $500-per-person fundraising dinner in Quebec City on Sept. 8.
Lebel and Alexander both expressed confidence their party will bounce back.
Following the Mount Royal rally, Alexander predicted to reporters that the Conservatives would add new cabinet ministers in Quebec after the 2015 election. When asked how many, he directed the question to Lebel, who replied: “As many as possible, for sure.”
The Tories will once again target Mount Royal as a potential beachhead in Montreal, where the party hasn’t won a seat in a quarter-century.
In 2011, Tory candidate Saulie Zajdel finished about 2,300 votes behind popular Liberal incumbent Irwin Cotler in the riding previously held by Pierre Elliott Trudeau.
Cotler has announced he will not seek re-election in the district, which is home to a large Jewish population.
In his speech, Lebel told the Mount Royal crowd that Harper’s foreign policy has helped Canada become Israel’s “best friend.”
“Obviously, our government is taking a strong stance on the right of Israel, not only to exist but also to defend its citizens,” Lebel said, drawing a big applause.
“As you know, Mount Royal is a riding we are determined to win — we came pretty close … But this time we will have to seal the deal.”
The Conservatives will run another candidate there in the next election.
Zajdel was arrested last year as part of Quebec’s anti-corruption crackdown. He was charged with alleged crimes police say took place between 2007 and 2008 when he was a municipal councillor.
Robert Libman, a prominent figure in the area who’s served as a local mayor and a provincial politician, has said he’s decided to seek the nomination in large part due to Harper’s Middle East approach and his economic policy.
“I think our riding is ready to make the switch after voting Liberal since 1940,” said Libman, who, as a member of the Equality party, won a provincial riding in the area that had long been a rock-solid Liberal seat.
“As I proved in 1989, if you work hard enough, and if the circumstances are working in a certain way around certain issues, you can turn the tide.”
Lebel’s cross-Quebec tour has taken him to a poutine festival, a lunch event at a Royal Canadian Legion and a riding where a Conservative incumbent lost a nail-biter in 2011.
Bernard Genereux thought he had retained his seat in Montmagny-L’Islet-Kamouraska-Riviere-du-Loup, but a recount revealed he had lost to the NDP’s Francois Lapointe — by nine votes.
Genereux, who’s seeking the nomination once again, said several cabinet ministers from outside Quebec have also visited the area in recent months.
“There’s nothing exceptional about what’s happening right now,” said Genereux, who thinks recent attention paid by the Tories was similar in the lead-up to 2011.
“It’s important to be visible in politics.”
Follow @AndyBlatchford on Twitter