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Scheer can only beat Trudeau with ‘veto voters’

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is vulnerable. The idol of progressives around the world has been tripped up at home through a series of missteps that have combined to forge a new narrative: Out-of-touch Liberal elites vacation on exotic islands and hide their millions in offshore accounts while hiking taxes. The narrative isn't true or fair, but politics is a rough business.

The question now is whether Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer can overcome the demons within his own political base to offer "veto voters" – the millions of middle-class voters in suburban ridings outside Toronto and Vancouver – a credible alternative.

"If there's a veto power in the game right now, it's the suburbs of the two big, diverse urban areas" west of the Ottawa River, believes Richard Johnston, who teaches political science at University of British Columbia.

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Winning power, he maintains, means winning over those suburban anglophone voters. For the Conservatives, the challenge is formidable, but not insurmountable.

Mr. Scheer has had a reasonably smooth go of it, since his wafer-thin victory at the leadership convention in May. The caucus appears united, fundraising is robust, and polls have narrowed in the wake of Finance Minister Bill Morneau's series of unfortunate events.

The Conservative Leader is young – 38, seven years younger than the Prime Minister – affable and smart, if rather bland. Thus far he has made no major missteps.

But the Conservatives have two big problems. The first is the damage that U.S. President Donald Trump is inflicting on the conservative brand everywhere, with his openly racist rhetoric and policies.

The second is the damage that former prime minister Stephen Harper inflicted on his own party during the last election campaign, when he criticized women who wear the niqab and proposed a "barbaric cultural practices hotline."

"The Conservatives seem to have bet in the last election that they could keep non-white voters in the fold as long as they targeted their attacks very carefully at Muslims," says Christopher Cochrane, who teaches political science at University of Toronto. That message was also attractive to the nativist white voters who are, by far, the least attractive element within the Conservative base.

The problem with the strategy was a) it was foul, damaging social cohesion by stigmatizing one group of Canadians, and b) it undermined the party's credibility among all voters. "In the long term it damaged the party's brand," Prof. Cochrane believes.

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That said, in many suburban ridings with large immigrant populations, the Tories actually held their vote, losing to the Liberals only because the NDP vote collapsed. With Brampton-based Jagmeet Singh as the new NDP Leader, the progressive vote may once again split, offering the Conservatives an opportunity to come up the middle.

The party also has an image problem among millennials, who will form the largest voting cohort in the next election. Even though millennials typically don't vote at levels comparable to boomers, there are so many of them that they increasingly dominate the political landscape.

While the Conservatives earned the support of about three millennials in 10 in the elections of 2006, 2008 and 2011, according to a study by the polling firm Abacus, only two in 10 supported them in 2015.

To win at least some of those millennial voters back, Mr. Scheer needs to be emphatic in support of issues that matter to them, such as fighting climate change. The Tories got off to a good start on that front in June by supporting a Liberal motion affirming Canada's commitment to the Paris accord.

Then there is protecting sexual minorities and a woman's right to an abortion, two other core millennial values. Mr. Scheer has already said he would take no action as prime minister to limit abortion rights. It will be interesting to see how he responds when Mr. Trudeau offers a formal apology, expected within a few weeks, for past discrimination against sexual minorities.

It is also worth noting that socially conservative MPs such as Kellie Leitch, Brad Trost and Cheryl Gallant have been relegated to the far-distant corners of the Tory backbench. Not only are those three not in the shadow cabinet, they're not even on any parliamentary committees.

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While issues such as climate change and sexual minority rights matter a lot to the punditocracy, for millennials, immigrants and all suburban, middle-class voters outside Toronto and Vancouver, the defining issues centre on the economy, taxes, crime and infrastructure – especially making the commute into work less of an aggravation.

Can Andrew Scheer convince these veto voters that what matters to them matters to him? Justin Trudeau convinced them in 2015, but now they're not so sure. If Mr. Scheer can win them over, he can become prime minister. But it's a long way to there from here.

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About the Author
Writer-at-large

John Ibbitson started at The Globe in 1999 and has been Queen's Park columnist and Ottawa political affairs correspondent.Most recently, he was a correspondent and columnist in Washington, where he wrote Open and Shut: Why America has Barack Obama and Canada has Stephen Harper. He returned to Ottawa as bureau chief in 2009. More

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