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Pierre Poilievre needs to win ridings like Mississauga-Lakeshore. Insiders reveal why he didn’t try harder this time


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Pierre Poilievre needs to win ridings like Mississauga-Lakeshore. Insiders reveal why he didn’t try harder this time

OTTAWA — Voters in Mississauga-Lakeshore have returned a Liberal to Parliament in a byelection that opposition parties played down Tuesday as having any meaningful impact on their own quests to unseat the government.

But with conventional wisdom holding that the path to power must include winning seats in the Greater Toronto Area, the outcome of Monday’s vote still prompted conversations about what it will take to shift the political landscape in the area come the next general election campaign.

The winner of the contest was former Ontario finance minister Charles Sousa, who had held the riding for the provincial Liberals for three terms before losing it to Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservatives in the 2018 election.

Sousa chalked up his victory to presenting a contrasting version to voters: in the Liberal corner, unity and in the Conservative corner, division.

“We refuse to play that game,” he said in his victory speech.

From the perspectives of some Conservatives, their party didn’t show up to even play the campaign game.

The Tories had never been bullish about their likelihood of winning — the Liberals have held the seat since 2015, when they defeated Conservative Stella Ambler.

But there were signs pointing to them having at least a chance: the Liberals are sinking in the polls, the economy is tough, and Conservative candidate Ron Chhinzer’s work as a police officer meshed well with the party’s tough-on-crime narrative. Plus, the riding is now held by the Progressive Conservatives provincially.

Taken together, those factors suggest Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre ought to have been able to make gains, some party insiders told the Star.

“If he can’t win or at the very least improve on the 2021 election results … in a byelection against a tired three-term Liberal government, then how exactly is he going to deliver a general election?” said one longtime Tory, granted anonymity to speak frankly about the party’s chances.

But when some Conservative MPs showed up to help Chhinzer knock on doors and rally the vote, they were confronted with a harsh reality of politics: when the opponent has a strong local presence in a riding his party has held for years, it takes more than a narrative about a tired government to make gains.

Other talking points from Tory headquarters link the loss to the riding’s relatively urban demographics and incomes, and the fact it was a place where anger over the Liberal government’s handling of the pandemic hasn’t reached the same boiling point as elsewhere in the country, or even in the GTA.

Insiders now insist work is being done to broaden the party’s connections in the region.

Since winning leadership of the party in September, Poilievre has spent a number of weekends in the area, meeting with community groups, giving interviews to ethnic media and trying to start building the bridges the Conservatives know they will need to pick up seats in the next election. This week, the party also announced it had brought on Arpan Khanna, who ran for the Tories in Brampton in 2019, as its national outreach chair.

But Poilievre did little of that outreach work in Mississauga-Lakeshore during the byelection campaign, a decision insiders said was pegged to the likelihood of not being able to win. Within the Tory caucus, there was even a debate about whether MPs should campaign there either, lest any be tarnished by a loss, a number of Conservative MPs told the Star.

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Meanwhile, an analysis of social media ads to reach voters suggested the Conservatives made little effort there, either.

“The party has been aggressively spending on other advertisements — about $10,726 on 161 different ads over the last 30 days — so we know they understand the power of digital advertising and they are serious about using it to grow their party and brand,” the firm Tester Digital wrote.

“But we find it very odd they aren’t spending any money in this byelection.”

On election night, Chhinzer finished with 37.3 per cent of the vote — a result on par with that of the Conservative candidate in the 2021 general election, Michael Ras, who secured 38.7 per cent of the vote.

The Liberal vote, however, was up: Sousa won with 51.2 per cent on Monday, while his predecessor, Sven Spengemann, held the riding with 44.9 per cent in 2021.

The Liberals had campaigned relatively aggressively in the riding, a practice Prime Minister Justin Trudeau suggested Tuesday ought to be standard practice for byelections.

“One of the things that matters about byelections is it’s an opportunity for citizens not just to send a strong voice to represent them in Ottawa but to weigh in on federal debates of the day,” he told reporters.

“That’s just one of the reasons I’ve always made it a point to campaign in every single byelection since before I was leader.”

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh had also campaigned in the riding for his party’s candidate, Julia Kole.

She finished with 4.9 per cent of the vote, down from the NDP’s 9.8 finish in 2021.

How much political credit the New Democrats can gain from their deal to prop up the Liberal minority government in exchange for action on key NDP priorities has been an open question since the two parties inked the agreement this year, with the byelection a potential early test.

Singh sloughed off the drop in support for his party.

“I want Canadians to know that I will fight for them in a way that they’ve seen with the things that we’ve delivered — doubling the GST rebate, bringing in rental supports, bringing in dental care — and for a lot of Canadians, that’s going to be a big difference,” he said.

“One result in one byelection that for three decades has been Liberal is not really going to inform my decision around the future of our movement or our party. The work that we’re doing is certainly resonating with people.”

If Mississauga-Lakeshore was an easy hold for the Liberals, the next expected byelection will be a similar scenario for the Conservatives. At the end of this month, Bob Benzen, the MP for Calgary Heritage, is resigning his seat in one of the safest Tory ridings in the country — it was previously held by former prime minister Stephen Harper.

Stephanie Levitz is an Ottawa-based reporter covering federal politics for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @StephanieLevitz

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