The Conservatives and the 6% Election

O'Toole needs to lead his party back to the suburbs and small cities — and benefit from some lucky splits, too

Every party has different goals when it comes to the next election campaign. If it is indeed called this summer, it will only be because the Liberals believe they can achieve their goal of a majority government.

The Conservatives would like a majority government, too, please and thank you. But, based on the party’s (and Erin O’Toole’s) current standings in the polls, that might not be a realistic goal at this point. Winning more seats than the Liberals, however, is more realistic — and if they get to that point, then they can think about taking the next step.

That brings us to what I’ve called the “6% Election”, the notion that each party can achieve their goals if they win the seats they lost by six percentage points or less in the 2019 federal election.

I delved into the Liberal target seats a couple weeks ago. Now we’ll get to the Conservatives.

Under Andrew Scheer, the party won 121 seats back in 2019 and came within at least six points of winning another 24. If they had taken those seats — and everything else stayed the same — they would have emerged with 145 seats, just a little more than the Liberals, who would have been reduced to 138 seats.

With that kind of result in the next election, it isn’t a given that O’Toole becomes the prime minister. Justin Trudeau could come to an agreement with the NDP and/or Bloc Québécois to keep running a minority government. But, at the very least, it would ensure that O’Toole would keep his job and be the heir apparent to the prime minister’s chair.

Getting there won’t be easy, however, and will require the Conservatives to regain some of the territory they have lost over the last 10 years since their majority government win in 2011.

Let’s go through the country east to west, starting with the Maritimes.

Two of the ridings in which the Conservatives came closest to winning in 2019 were in Atlantic Canada. The party was just about a point short in both the Nova Scotia riding of Cumberland–Colchester and the New Brunswick riding of Miramichi–Grand Lake.

The Conservatives won both of these seats in 2011 but were swept out of the region by the Liberals in 2015.

Lenore Zann, a former NDP MLA for the provincial Truro riding, is the incumbent for the Liberals in Cumberland–Colchester. The town is key to winning the seat, as the Conservatives have won the vote in Truro before and can take the seat if they add Truro’s votes to their rural strength. The Nova Scotia election on August 17 could be instructive here.

Miramichi–Grand Lake will not have an incumbent since Liberal MP Pat Finnigan, first elected in 2015, is not running for re-election. But there will be familiar names on the ballot nevertheless, as former provincial cabinet ministers Lisa Harris (Liberals) and Jake Stewart (Conservatives) are running to replace Finnigan.

The Liberals were strong on the coast in 2019, while the city of Miramichi was divided between the Liberals and Conservatives, who did better in the Miramichi Valley. Note that the provincial riding of Miramichi voted for the New Brunswick People’s Alliance last year, so there is certainly a right-of-centre electorate here for the Conservatives to tap.

There are two other ridings in New Brunswick the Conservatives will be targeting, both in urban centres. The Liberals won Saint John–Rothesay by just three points last time. And while outspoken Liberal MP Wayne Long is running again, the Conservatives will have former Saint John mayor Mel Norton as their candidate. Note: the Progressive Conservatives swept all of Saint John’s seats in last year’s provincial election.


Fredericton, however, is the interesting one. This was a three-way race in 2019 that was narrowly won by the Greens. But Jenica Atwin has crossed the floor to the Liberals, thereby likely making this seat a Liberal-Conservative battle once again. Atwin will be counting on the urban vote in Fredericton which has tended to support the Liberals or New Democrats in the past. The Conservatives won’t win the seat without a perfect split if they can’t break into the city.

In Prince Edward Island, the Conservatives’ Gail Shea used to hold the seat of Egmont, which occupies the northwestern extremity of the island. Bobby Morissey is the Liberal incumbent, thanks to his dominance of the Summerside polls in 2019. Some of those went Green, however, and if the recent party turmoil pushes those voters back to the Liberals it will be hard for the Conservatives to win the seat.

Lastly, we get to Cape Breton. The Conservatives haven’t swept the island since John Diefenbaker’s landslide in 1958, so it won’t be easy for the Conservatives to take both of its seats. If the provincial election shows that the Liberal brand has recovered from some of the beatings it took in 2017 and 2019, then it really won’t be easy for the Conservatives. But they were only a few points short in both Sydney–Victoria and Cape Breton–Canso in 2019, so they don’t need much to go over the top.

Sydney–Victoria’s 2019 result might be an anomaly, though. There was an unexpected split in the seat when Archie MacKinnon captured 14% of the vote as an Independent candidate. He won that vote largely in the Sydney Mines area, which backed the Conservatives in 2011. If that vote returns to the Conservatives, then former PC MLA Eddie Orrell might have a better shot of winning this time.

Unlike in 2019, when the party was hoping for a modest breakthrough in the province, Quebec is not looking particularly promising for the Conservatives in 2021. But there are two seats for the Conservatives to target in hopes that they can be the beneficiaries of a divided vote.

The Bloc Québécois won both Trois-Rivières and Beauport–Limoilou with less than one-third of the vote in 2019. The Conservatives would likely need to do the same to win either of them.

The Bloc won’t have an incumbent in Trois-Rivières, as Louise Charbonneau isn’t running again after one term in office. Yves Lévesque, former mayor, will be returning for the Conservatives and he gives them a chance to win. The Conservatives haven’t taken this seat since 1988, but they do have a base of support here: the party captured 32% of the vote in Trois-Rivières in 2006 and 24% in 2008.

The Conservatives won the Quebec City riding of Beauport–Limoilou in 2008, 2011 and 2015, but it’s a seat in which they really need the splits to work in their favour. The boundary shifted in 2013, removing a chunk of the Conservative-friendly suburbs from the riding. Alupa Clarke (who will be running for the third time here) was able to win with just 30% in 2015 but fell short in 2019. Without a surge in support for the party, it is hard to see it winning this one unless the Liberals and Bloc split the vote again just enough to let Clarke squeak by.

I’ve split the Ontario target seats into two political rather than geographic regions. The first features seats in which the fight is between the Liberals and the Conservatives.

Three of these are in the York area north of Toronto where the Conservatives still have some strength in the GTA. Richmond Hill, King–Vaughan and Newmarket–Aurora were all closely fought, with the first two decided by less than two points. The Liberals will have incumbents in at least two of them, with Deb Schulte in King–Vaughan and Tony Van Bynen in Newmarket–Aurora. I couldn’t find anything that confirmed that Majid Jowhari was running again in Richmond Hill, but former Conservative MP Costas Menegakis is taking another run at the riding.

These three seats are key to the Conservatives’ hopes. They need to break into the GTA, and if they can’t win in York they won’t win anywhere else.

East of Toronto, Bay of Quinte and Peterborough–Kawartha were both part of the Conservative majority win in 2011 and feature a mix of urban and rural constituents.

In Bay of Quinte, the Liberals’ Neil Ellis did best in Belleville and the southern portion of Prince Edward County, while the Conservatives did best in Trenton and the northern portion of PEC. When the Conservatives won the seat in the past, they won all these areas. They’ll need to do that again.

The Liberals’ Maryam Monsef did very well in the urban core of Peterborough last time, while the rural areas went Conservative. Without more of that Peterborough vote, the Conservatives won’t win this bellwether seat.

Finally, Kitchener–Conestoga is the kind of seat the Conservatives can’t afford to give up — but is one that is demographically moving away from them. As the Kitchener–Waterloo area grows, it seems to be voting politically more like the GTA rather than the smaller cities of southwestern Ontario. If you look at the poll-by-poll results, the Liberals won the (growing) areas in Kitchener while the Conservatives won small towns like New Hamburg and Elmira. But it is the Kitchener votes that will decide the outcome.

The next set of ridings are former NDP strongholds that have moved towards the Liberals over the last few elections. But the Conservatives have bases of support in these three seats, making them the potential beneficiaries of a split if the NDP does better in this election, but not so well as to win these seats back from the Liberals

They are located at the three extremes of the province. The Conservatives finished second in Niagara Centre and Thunder Bay–Rainy River last time, and were just behind in third in Windsor–Tecumseh. The Liberals have incumbents in all three ridings but if the NDP gives them enough of a fight and the Conservatives can increase their vote closer to the 33% mark, these could go their way. This is new territory for the Conservatives and, along with those Quebec seats, it is the kind of lucky break O’Toole needs.

The next two seats are odds and ends that don’t fit anywhere else.

The Conservatives last won Yukon in 2011, thanks in part to a split in the vote when the Green candidate did particularly well. They fell well short in 2015 but were closer in 2019, closing the margin on Larry Bagnell significantly. One thing that bodes well for the Conservatives in the territory is that the right-of-centre Yukon Party won the popular vote in the April territorial election, indicating a souring on the Liberal brand in Yukon.

In Manitoba in 2019, the Conservatives reclaimed two suburban Winnipeg seats they had lost in 2015. To continue their return to the capital’s outskirts would mean defeating Terry Duguid in Winnipeg South. The unpopularity of Brian Pallister’s Progressive Conservative government, however, will not make that task easier.

Finally, we get to British Columbia. This could be the most challenging place for the Conservatives, who are trailing in third in most polls in the province. To win seats in B.C., the Conservatives need to beat Liberals in the Lower Mainland and New Democrats elsewhere, but those parties are doing better in the polls than they did two years ago.

The two Lower Mainland seats to the east of Vancouver were close last time, with the Liberals winning Coquitlam–Port Coquitlam by less than a point and Fleetwood–Port Kells by less than four. Ron McKinnon and Ken Hardie, respectively, will be there as the Liberal incumbents. In the latter riding, the Conservatives have former B.C. Liberal MLA Dave Hayer as their candidate. Coquitlam–Port Coquitlam, though bordered by Conservative-held ridings to its east and west, could be a challenge, as the area went heavily for the B.C. NDP in last year’s provincial election. What could help is if just enough of the Liberal vote peels off to the NDP, putting the Conservatives ahead.

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The Conservatives last won the B.C. Interior seat of South Okanagan–West Kootenay in 2011 and the vote this time will be a 2019 re-match between the NDP’s Richard Cannings and the Conservatives’ Helena Konanz. She will need to do much better in Penticton, which broke for the NDP in 2019. Other parts of the riding, such as around Trail, have been solid for the New Democrats, but when the Conservatives won this seat in the past they won the vote in Penticton.

The NDP’s Rachel Blaney will be defending her hold on North Island–Powell River, which includes parts of both Vancouver Island and the mainland coast. Key here will be the Conservatives winning more of the vote in Campbell River and Comox, as the mainland section of the riding is far more NDP-friendly.

For the most part, the Conservatives aren’t looking to plow new fields with these target seats. Only seven of the 24 on this list weren’t part of Stephen Harper’s majority win in 2011. And, based on where the polls stand, the Conservatives have some work to do to get them in a position to hold the 121 seats they won last time, let alone grow from that base.

But there are some over-arching themes here: a return to the suburbs that delivered Harper’s majority around Toronto, Vancouver and Winnipeg, along with winning back smaller cities like Fredericton, Saint John, Peterborough and Kitchener. The party also needs to win more of the vote in even smaller urban centres to help top-up its rural strength in mixed ridings.

Add to that some lucky breaks in three-way splits in parts of Quebec and Ontario, where the Liberals are distracted by fights with the Bloc and NDP, and you have yourself a recipe for 140 seats or more. In the current context, that would be a pretty big upset win for Erin O’Toole and the Conservatives.