The makings of a stronghold: What’s the secret to a political ‘safe seat’?

September 27, 2019

The makings of a stronghold: What’s the secret to a political ‘safe seat’?

Written by Taylor Blewett, Ottawa Citizen, with commentary from Earnscliffe’s Yaroslav Baran. Click here to read the original.

On a sunny Saturday morning in Ottawa–Vanier, Carole-Ann Larose and Wayne Corneil answered a knock at the door by their local member of Parliament.

Theirs was one of many Liberal-leaning households that Mona Fortier’s campaign team visited that day, and the conversation played out amicably, as it does between people who know they’re on the same team and share the same goal: to elect a Liberal in the riding for the 16th consecutive time (or 29th, if you count the years between 1935 and 1974 when it was called “Ottawa East”).

The riding is a Liberal stronghold, widely considered one of the safest Grit seats in the country. Its steadfast vote through historic Liberal defeats, member of Parliament turnover and changing riding demographics speaks to enduring partisan loyalty. Where this loyalty comes from is less obvious, despite the fact it’s not uncommon.

Ottawa–Vanier is one of many ridings across the country where the same party, and in many cases, the same candidate, receives enough support to take the seat election after election. Because voting outcomes in these ridings often feel like foregone conclusions, they’re easily overlooked in the flurry that surrounds the battleground seats that can make or break governments.

But strongholds result from a striking phenomenon – namely, that a plurality of voters, come scandal, inertia or public opinion to the contrary, still decide to stay in long-term relationships with the same political party.

The recipe for a “safe seat” isn’t simple – if it were, it’s likely every party would be out, concocting their own. But a deeper look by this newspaper at some local strongholds, and conversations with people who know them well, reveals a common origin story: a close connection between both constituents and their local candidate, and constituents and the party banner under which that candidate is running. And if these strongholds are going to break, as many eventually do, it’s in these same places that the fault lines may be traced back.

Back in Ottawa–Vanier, Larose and Corneil chatted pharmacare and provincial politics with their MP, and happily accepted Fortier’s campaign literature and lawn signs.

“You vote, first, for the candidate,” said Corneil. “Mauril Bélanger was one of the most outstanding members of Parliament. He did things even as a backbencher that were incredible. Mona has tried to carry on that tradition.”

Bélanger was the latest in a series of long-serving Liberal MPs in Ottawa–Vanier, holding the seat for more than two decades and eight elections. Before him, Jean-Robert Gauthier was Ottawa–Vanier’s member of Parliament from 1972 to 1994. He took over from Jean-Thomas Richard, who’d occupied the seat since 1945.

Incumbency is one of the factors that can explain why a riding continues to elect its representative from the same party, according to Stephen White, an assistant professor of political science at Carleton University.

“Those already in office do have an advantage: they have name recognition … a record, well-developed connections within the local riding. So that means, more often than not, the incumbent is the favourite,” he said.

In addition to enjoying an established reputation, Ottawa–Vanier’s Liberal incumbents have also benefitted from the support of an extremely active riding association. During his years of involvement, longtime association executive Vijay Tejuja said they ran regular events in different areas of the riding throughout terms of government, not just around election time.

“One thing which people don’t like is showing up during door-knocking, at the time of a campaign, and saying, ‘Vote for me.’ Because where were you the previous four years?”

It helps that the Ottawa–Vanier Liberals have a well-financed riding association – its net assets totalled more than $130,000 in 2018. Helpful, too, is the fact the riding is located minutes away from Parliament Hill, making MP face time easier to come by.

It’s also a riding that’s long been Liberal at the provincial level. When provincial and federal parties of the same stripe enjoy a close relationship, they can share data, double up on organizational resources and collaborate to get things done in their respective ridings.

Tejuja pointed out this natural working relationship can produce real benefits for constituents – many of whom don’t know or care what level of government is technically responsible for dealing with an issue they’re concerned about.

“It may not necessarily be a federal issue, but as long as the constituents know that something is being done about it …

“You have to be able to reach out for the good of the people,” Tejuja said.

Ultimately, he believes it’s by prioritizing their constituents that Ottawa–Vanier’s MPs have garnered such enduring support.

Between scoring what many in the riding consider major wins – saving the Montfort Hospital and opposing a proposed interprovincial bridge over Kettle Island – Bélanger also worked through mountains of individual constituent files, Tejuja said, helping solve problems with immigration documents or pensions. And when he died in 2016, he was remembered by many as a remarkable constituent champion.

Fortier, Bélanger’s successor, boasts her own deep connection to Ottawa–Vanier voters. The former riding association president and lifelong area resident drew a team of 400 volunteers for her successful byelection campaign in 2017.

Clearly, a dedicated constituency MP can go a long way when it comes to building and maintaining riding loyalty to a particular party. But in many cases, it’s not bulwark enough to guard against the winds of change that can sway constituents’ votes.

Take Ottawa Centre, which the New Democrats held under Ed Broadbent and then Paul Dewar between 2004 and the last federal election.

“I don’t think anybody in 2015 wanted to fire Paul Dewar,” said Kiavash Najafi, a former Dewar campaign manager who worked for the NDP for more than a decade. Dewar was a popular local MP, who built a reputation for his dedication to constituents and willingness to work across party lines.

But nationally, the electoral trends were not in his favour. Najafi does not believe Team Dewar could have done anything differently to keep the seat orange.

“There was a real sense of excitement and enthusiasm for Justin Trudeau and his message of real change,” Najafi said. “The progressive population was coalescing around the best choice to defeat Stephen Harper.”

Dewar lost his seat to Liberal Catherine McKenna, as did other high-profile New Democrats across the country – Peggy Nash in Toronto, Jack Harris in St. John’s and Megan Leslie in Halifax – who went down as a Liberal wave swept through their ridings.

In many cases, it’s this sort of sweep election that shifts a riding’s longtime loyalty to one party. “Suddenly, you just have a wave of popular support and it changes everything,” said Dennis Matthews, a vice-president at communications firm Enterprise Canada who worked in the PMO under Stephen Harper.

But there are outlier ridings – strongholds that stay strongholds even when the national trends are against them. One example is Renfrew–Nipissing–Pembroke, an eastern Ontario riding where Conservative MP Cheryl Gallant has consistently outperformed her own party and maintained the seat in every election since 2000.

Even in 2015, which saw the Conservatives reduced to 99 seats in the House of Commons and a 32 per cent vote share, Gallant retained Renfrew–Nipissing–Pembroke with her sixth election win, and 46 per cent of the local vote.

Why has this riding proven so staunchly Conservative? The answer, many believe, is an association with the party brand that runs deeper, even, than loyalty to the person running under it.

Gallant has her supporters, to be sure. A visit to the riding found constituents who offered personal praise.

“She’s done a good job. She’s the only politician that’s ever written me or called me on the phone in this area,” said Garry Card, who stopped to chat on Pembroke’s main street.

In Cobden, another constituent said his Conservative allegiance comes from Cheryl’s work to help his wife take maternity leave.

But other riding Tories said their vote would go Conservative despite, rather than because of, their local member of Parliament.

“Did you hear her latest remark? About pot causing the carbon tax? Holy Christ,” said Pete Marcoux, a Cobden resident. “But we’ll keep voting her in, because there’s no other alternative. I will not have a Liberal in.”

Gallant’s recent suggestion that smoking cannabis harms the environment is the latest in a long series of controversial incidents that have dogged her tenure in office. She’s compared abortion to the beheading of an Iraq war hostage, and once had to apologize for using a photo of slain soldier Nathan Cirillo in a fundraising email.

Gallant did not respond to a request for interview by this newspaper, a habit she has maintained for years. But an interview with Mike Coates, a man who challenged Gallant for the local Conservative nomination in 2018, offered some insight on her enduring popularity with supporters in the riding.

Coates campaigned heavily on pledges to work to bring economic growth and job opportunities to the rural region.

“What I found was that there were many people in the riding who were actually more interested in issues of beliefs and values,” said Coates. “Cheryl understood that, and does a very good job of representing those beliefs and values in Parliament. That helps explain her phenomenal success in the riding.”

Gallant has been outspoken on issues of conscience – freedom of religion, firearms rights and sex eduction. A look at her voting record shows she opposed cannabis legalization and assisted suicide, while voting in favour of reopening the same-sex marriage debate. A scroll through her Facebook page also shows a dedication to rural living, with content praising farming, country fairs and communal flood recovery.

Even among those who don’t consider themselves Gallant supporters, there’s a sense of shared values that guides their Conservative vote in election after election.

Ursula Palubiski co-owns the White Lake Restaurant, a community hub in the tiny village of the same name. She reserves a table for the dozen or so locals who consistently show up 15 minutes before she opens, ready to talk Valley politics over coffee. Her sense is that many Renfrew–Nipissing–Pembroke voters feel more connected to the Conservative party and its national brand than they do to Gallant.

“They liked Harper’s no-nonsense kind of approach, they liked the fact that they’d see him with his son at the hockey game, he was kind of a more approachable, down-to-earth kind of guy,” she said.

“I think Justin Trudeau’s image is – there’s a little rich guy with the nice hair, and he doesn’t really care about us because he can’t understand what we’re living.”

Much like a close relationship between riding residents and constituent-focused politicians, strongholds can also be built through a sense of shared values between the electorate in a given riding and the party they consistently choose to represent them.

“It’s not like a policy pamphlet, this is stuff that goes deeper for voters,” said Matthews, the Conservative strategist.

Whether it’s age, income, ethnicity or the like, different demographic characteristics can correlate with a vote for a particular party, Matthews explained. And when a concentration of voters with the same partisan predisposition populate a riding, “they’re almost like a layer on top of the normal shifts that happen from election to election,” Matthews said.

One example? Public servants. Because their livelihoods depend on continued investment in government service delivery, and because there’s an association between Liberal policy and support for public services, a bureaucrat may well be inclined to vote for a Liberal candidate. In a riding with a large population of public servants, this could translate into the repeated election of a Liberal member of Parliament, regardless of national political trends that see the Liberal party fall out of favour.

Likewise, the persistence of a Conservative stronghold like Renfrew–Nipissing–Pembroke could be explained, in part, by demographic factors that favour a Conservative vote.

One particularly salient characteristic associated with voting in a like way is geography.

“People who live in the same areas already tend to share a lot in common,” said White, the political science professor at Carleton. “If you think about people in large urban centres, they probably share a lot of the same positions on social, economic, political issues with one another. People in rural areas probably share a lot of the same positions as one another, too.”

It’s no surprise that Renfrew–Nipissing–Pembroke, like many others rural ridings, is a “safe seat” for the Conservatives. Yaroslav Baran, former Conservative communications director and current partner at Earnscliffe Strategy Group, explained that the association between rural residents and a Tory vote is an established one, and it, too, ties back to the values for which Canada’s political parties have come to stand.

Canada’s federal conservatives have a long association with support for small government and the rights of individuals, Baran said. “Those values or themes of individualism, or self-reliance, of less reliance on government – that’s far more present in rural Canada, just as an accident of history and as a fact of life.

“You’re not going to have that bus coming down your rural lane every 10 minutes when you’re living in a semi-organized rural township. You need to be self-reliant, you need to have your car, you need to have a battery pack and jumper cable in your boot … because if it’s not you, there’s nobody else to lean on,” Baran said.

Contrast that with the urban experience and traditional Liberal principles, and it’s easy to understand why residing in an urban core can lend itself to a Liberal vote.

“The more urban you are, the more naturally predisposed you are to build your lifestyle around one of communal supports and government-provided services,” Baran said.

Over the years, party branding has evolved, and so, too, have the types of voters that find themselves reflected in values of a particular party. Marc-André Bodet, an associate professor of political science at Laval University, pointed to one example: the long association between the Liberal party and multiculturalism.

“In the early 2000s, the Conservatives realized that to actually win a majority of seats, they need to kind of destroy one of the pillars of the Liberal party, which was diversity. And they’ve been able to do it, mostly in the suburbs of big cities,” said Bodet. “This former pillar of the Liberal party, which was … if you were born somewhere other than Canada, you would vote Liberal, this is not as true as it was in the past.”

As party positioning evolves, this can affect party popularity in ridings traditionally considered strongholds.

Renfrew-Nipissing–Pembroke wasn’t always a safe Conservative seat. In fact, it was Liberal territory from its creation in 1979 to Gallant’s first election win in 2000.

Observers pin much of the reason for this red-blue flip to the transformation of the Liberal party brand. Around that time there was a feeling, said Coates, Gallant’s challenger for the nomination, that the Liberals “stopped representing the interests of rural Canada.”

The final straw, according to many – including Hector Clouthier, the Liberal incumbent defeated in the 2000 election – was the Liberal government’s attempt to create a long-gun registry. Gallant came out hard against the policy, and this is widely considered the launching point for her reign in the riding.

“That was perhaps the trigger,” said Coates, “but it was more emblematic of a broader evolution of the Liberal platform which was almost solely focused on urban Canada.”

As Renfrew–Nipissing–Pembroke goes to show, political parties bear some responsibility for the maintenance of their strongholds – as well as their loss when a party evolves away from its electorate in the riding.

Constituencies, though, can also change on their own. And if their transformation is significant, it can spell the end of a traditional base of support on which a party might rely.

Baran pointed out that demographic homogeneity is one of the factors that can explain the existence of strongholds.

“In some cases, it is a linguistic component. In other cases, it’s a socioeconomic one. In other cases, it’s more of a cultural one,” he said. “When you have a riding that is predominantly cut of the same cloth, it’s easier to understand how voting intention would be far more uniform.”

If the population starts changing, and people move in and out of the riding, that can erode the demographic landscape that lent itself to a common vote. “When you have a higher degree of transience in a riding, then there’s more of an opportunity for different political or voting cultures to seep in,” Baran said.

In Ottawa–Vanier, a common explanation for its enduring Liberal legacy lies with the large concentration of Franco-Ontarian voters in the riding, a traditionally Liberal-leaning demographic. But that population is shrinking, as the area becomes increasingly diverse. And if a party ignores changes like this, and does the same thing they’ve always done to win the seat, that can be a stronghold’s undoing.

“A couple of elections have demonstrated that there’s no real ‘safe seats,’” said Greg MacEachern, a Liberal strategist and senior vice-president at Proof Strategies. “A cookie-cutter approach is not going to work.

“You need to respect the local voices who have worked on campaigns and can tell you, ‘Look, that type of messaging won’t work here,’ or ‘That type of messaging is exactly what we want.’”

Local Liberals in Ottawa–Vanier are aware their constituency continues to evolve – hence, proactive door-knocking, engaging with different communities during Eid or Hanukkah, and trying to reflect the diversity that exists in the riding. Tejuja, an immigrant, uses his own tenure with the riding association as an example.

“If you ever take the electorate for granted, you will be in trouble,” he said. It’s a sentiment Fortier also raised, while out door-knocking in the community.

“I know it’s been Liberal for always, but that’s the result – I work as hard as anybody else, I knock on as many doors, if not more, because I don’t take that for granted.”

After their doorstep conversation with Fortier, staunch Liberals Larose and Corneil revealed that once, when they lived in Ottawa Centre, the New Democrats won their vote.

“It was what was needed at the time, it still felt fresh and new,” said Larose. That was years ago, but both admit it’s possible they could stray once more from the Liberal party – if, say, it stopped nominating candidates in Ottawa–Vanier who are deeply connected to their constituents, as they say both Fortier and her predecessors have proven to be.

It’s a conversation that underscores the fact that even the safest of seats are comprised of voters with free will. And if one of the factors that can foster a stronghold starts to falter – a hardworking, constituency-focused MP, a connection to the principles the party stands for, or a demographic makeup that’s friendly to a particular party – that stronghold can fall.

“Think of a battlefield,” said Bodet, the professor at Laval. “You’re becoming less and less in a position of control, and then suddenly you realize your advantage is gone.”