, 10.20.2018 09:00 AM

Why Tory won (bigly), why Keesmaat lost (badly), and who was behind the scenes

What, presently, is the biggest election in Canada?

It’s big, really big. Close to two million voters, and close to three million citizens. A budget of $13 billion. Greater population density than metropolitan New York City.

And – most critically – it involves all of the major political parties, and has lessons to offer all of them.

Toronto, come on down!

Now, before we get started, full disclosure: this writer is volunteering for one of the mayoral candidates. Been doing so for many months. So, bias spoiler alert.

But the Toronto municipal election perhaps provides some helpful insights about the federal election that will be concluding one year from today. Three points.

One: the so-called Left – New Democrats and orangey-red Liberals – is in trouble.

Consider their candidate, Jen Keesmaat. Toronto’s former chief planner jumped into the race way back in July. She was, and is, smart, articulate and telegenic. She attracted a top-notch team of professionals to advise her: former NDP leadership candidate Brian Topp, senior Ontario New Democratic comms guru Chris Ball, former federal Liberal ministerial advisor Beth Clarkson, Jack Layton muse Brad Lavigne, and a former Parliamentary Secretary to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Adam Vaughan. Among others.

Keesmaat gave as good as she got in debates. She knew the issues. The camera loved her, the media gave her plenty of attention, and she could speak in pithy soundbites on command.

But her campaign – despite all of that – never caught on. It stalled, and then it ground to a halt. When the Toronto mayoral campaign concludes, a week from today, Jennifer Keesmaat may well end up more than forty percentage points behind her main opponent, Toronto mayor John Tory. As such, she is days away from the most humiliating municipal loss the Left has experienced in Toronto in decades.

Not everything that ails the Left can be pinned on Jagmeet Singh, folks. If the disastrous Jennifer Keesmaat has shown us anything, it is that voters remain suspicious of political options on the Left. Even in Toronto, where the political Left has traditionally found a foothold, things have gotten decidedly frosty.

Two: the centre is still the place to be.

In the Trump era – post-Brexit, when so-called “populist” candidates are seemingly winning public office across the Americas and Western Europe – we have become accustomed to centrist candidates being squeezed out by the political extremes. In these nasty, brutish and short-sighted times, voices of moderation seem to be outnumbered.

But, again, consider Toronto’s mayoral race. John Tory, the incumbent, may have a Progressive Conservative pedigree – he was formerly the provincial Tory leader, and has been a federal Progressive Conservative strategist – but he and his campaign have hewn closely to the political centre. And it has paid rich political dividends.

Tory’s mayoralty has been characterized by moderation and balance. He has held the line on taxes, but also championed a transit discount for seniors, and a Kids Ride Free transit program. He’s pushed to hire more police (which has pleased the political Right) – while also becoming a national voice for a handgun ban (which has delighted the political Left). As a result, polls show Tory is supported by as much as 70 per cent of traditional Liberal voters – and a majority of Conservative voters, as well. Not many politicians can claim to do that.

As such, his team – campaign and/or mayoral – has been always comprised of advisors from across the ideological spectrum. Luke Robertson, Vic Gupta, Amanda Galbraith, Vince Gasparro, Keerthana Kamalavasan, Don Peat, Deb Hutton, Andrew Tumilty, Courtney Glen, Chris Eby, Amanda Galbraith and (of course) Nick Kouvalis – they were brought together, and kept there, by Tory’s centrist approach. (Me, too.)

The mayoral race has itself become a microcosm of the wider political clashes now taking place across Western democracy. On Tory’s Left was the aforementioned Jennifer Keesmaat, around whom the ideological Left has rallied. On the mayor’s Right were assorted candidates of the Right and far-Right – among them Faith Goldy, a white supremacist with a formidable social media presence, and James Sears, the publisher of a neo-Nazi newspaper.

In Toronto, the ideological extremes essentially reminded voters why they wanted to vote for John Tory. The attacks that Keesmaat (in particular) levelled at Tory – that he was dull, that he delayed, that he dithered – rebounded on her. Voters rallied around him, preferring Tory’s calm, methodical and decidedly centrist approach.

Three: campaigns still matter.

In Trump times, again, it had seemed that running a chaotic, shambolic election campaign – as Trump did in 2016 – won’t hurt your chances, so much. The candidates who seemed to be winning seemed the be the ones who didn’t run campaign ads, didn’t prepare for debates, and didn’t have staff with any experience. Donald Trump, in other words.

The outcome of the Toronto municipal race suggests all of that was the exception, not the rule. John Tory’s campaign was staffed by experienced Conservatives, Liberals and even a few New Democrats – and the experience showed. On election night, Tory will not merely win: polls suggest he will win in a landslide against a capable and smart opponent.

It’s never a good idea to read too much into by-elections. So, too, municipal races, and what they mean for politics generally.

But this Toronto municipal race has been significant – for what it means for Canada’s political Left, for centrist politicians, and for traditional election campaigns.

It matters.

22 Comments

  1. Robert White says:

    The municipal election in Ottawa is a landslide for Jim Watson too, but Clive Doucet ran an excellent campaign against him. Unfortunately, no significant debates occurred this electoral round and incumbent Mayor Watson pretty well avoided interaction with his main opponent.

    As a $3.2 billion per year business Ottawa is but a fraction of what constitutes the Toronto municipal corporate process. Our mayoral candidates were numerous at 12 running for the helm. Only two of the candidates brought experience to the table. The experience Watson & Doucet bring to this process is extensive and enlightening for those of us that are less experienced with the political process.

    Developer donations of $1200. each is still a thorn in the side of participatory democracy around here though and many councillor candidates opted to refuse that largesse.

    RW

    • Campbell says:

      I don’t know that I would call Doucet’s campaign “excellent”. From what I could see, if was barely competent at best. He failed to explain how he would provide a better vision for the City, or a compelling reason to change course. He kept championing a crazy commuter rail plan that had essentially no basis in reality. He tried to relate Jim Watson’s unwillingness to debate him on the environment to the fact that tornadoes caused considerable damage to Ottawa in one of the only campaign videos I’ve ever seen that makes the infamous Dion video look good. His campaign was an inept waste of time from where I was sitting, and I don’t really blame Watson for completely ignoring him.

      • Robert White says:

        His campaign was organized and a better campaign than Watson ran from my vantage point. And my vantage point is aligned with Doucet on developer donations & campaign influence which he declined to accept unlike the incumbent.
        Furthermore, I am on Clive Doucet’s mailing list for the election so I, for one, am linked in to all his media announcements. To be frank, I ran against Watson twice and lost both times of which only one run was half-heartedly approached. Running against Jim Watson is an educated in and of itself as he is a master election planner that has never lost a race for office.

        I respect Mayor Watson’s ability but I’m too invested in Doucet’s Marxist leanings against the corporatists & developers so I will vote for Clive Doucet this electoral round.

        Incumbent Mayor Watson was very forthright & responsive to the two inquiries I made about his run for office & platform position. Clive was standoffish with me but I like Clive’s moxie & left-of-center politics over the developer friendly Liberal incumbent.

        RW

    • Wayne McDonald III says:

      Warren didn’t mention that incumbents tend to win in municipal elections…

      • Robert White says:

        Incumbency status & probability of winning an election based upon the statistics is a well known trend in municipal politics that I learned on my first run for public office. Running against incumbents is an impossible feat probability wise but it assures competitors in the conviction that attaining office is not just based upon incumbency alone. And once competitors realize that incumbents are not infallible with respect to their political record & political process failings on past terms of office the prospects of winning an uphill battle become evident in the face of reality.

        Reality on voting day has surprised pollsters in the past, eh.

        RW

  2. James Smith says:

    Getting back to southern Ontario, I spent some time with a colleague late this week who’s door knocking for the NDP candidate a downtown TeaHo ward & is hopeful/confident that candidate will win. When I ask about the Mayor the assessment is “the boring guy will win, no question, but Ms K may come closer than people think”.
    TeaHo soaks up so much news that we in the rest of Ontario, we are not well served. As it is we are living in what’s all but news vacuum. Many people in this part of SW Ontario are as or more aware of your election than ours. As a result many Pols & civic officials are going to get away with lots & lots of dodgy stuff & we’ll rarely (if ever) find out about it.

  3. The Doctor says:

    One thing that’s really going to make life difficult for left-leaning parties in Canada over the next few years is our fiscal, tax and interest rate situation. A lot of provincial budgets are in precarious shape and a significant upward trend in interest rates will only make that worse. It was a lot easier to be left wing and borrow and spend when interest rates were practically negligible. To make things worse for people who like to tax and spend, Trump’s tax cuts are putting significant pressure on Canadian federal and provincial governments to keep tax rates competitive with the US.

    • James Smith says:

      What a curious time we live in. While people when asked in the “western” countries about issues they seem to support more progressive issues while voters seem to be lashing out against the technocrat Pols of the centre. Mr Tory seems to be an exception. You do have a point, up to a point. If the House flips in November, you are going to see a bun fight about Make the Rich Pay.

    • Ronald O'Dowd says:

      The Doctor,

      On this like many issues, the old double standard exists…

      When the left tax and spend it’s at least irresponsible. But when Trump blows up the deficit heading for fiscal oblivion, that’s just hunky dory for many on the right.

  4. Peter says:

    You make a very good point. I’m not from Toronto, but if I were, I’d likely vote for him precisely because he is decent, non-partisan and maybe even a little boring. It amazes me how many anti-Ford and anti-Trump people are so caught up in their doomsday rhetoric and fevered accusations of racism, fascism, etc. that they are blind to how turned off so many are by their own side. Victory for the Dems in the midterms and maybe even 2020 should be a cakewalk, but a lot of their big names seem to be hellbent on snatching losses from the jaws of victory.

    • Ronald O'Dowd says:

      Peter,

      Trump traffics in fear and it continues to pay big dividends. Those highly receptive to fear always vote a lot more than those pushing hope. That’s why Michelle is wrong and Holder is dead-on.

      Every night I disgustingly watch the master play the fear card and it still works even when they tell pollsters that only 37% support Trump.

      I see Republicans holding the Senate and not so sure of a big Democratic House majority.

      I expect to be sick to my stomach on mid-term night as Trump somehow wins again. Trump says he’s on the ballot and that has me seriously worried. Hope I turn out to be full of shit.

      • Peter says:

        With respect, that kind of laudatory self-perception is a big reason Dems may be struggling to gain electoral traction. Don’t ask me to defend the guy, but how someone who has convinced himself or herself that those who disagree with them are racist or otherwise flawed, who pretty much admits borders can’t be policed and has no idea how to protect domestic jobs from moving overseas stands for hope while one who sees himself or herself as patriotic, is pro-American workers, and is excited about the vision of making America great again stands for fear is beyond me. Of course the same syndrome applies in reverse, which is why there is no easy way in sight out of the tribalism they are succumbing to, not with the current leadership of both parties.

        From here:

        We live in a time of tribes. Not of ideologies, parties, groups, or beliefs—these don’t convey the same impregnability of political fortifications, or the yawning chasms between them. American politics today requires a word as primal as “tribe” to get at the blind allegiances and huge passions of partisan affiliation. Tribes demand loyalty, and in return they confer the security of belonging. They’re badges of identity, not of thought. In a way, they make thinking unnecessary, because they do it for you, and may punish you if you try to do it for yourself. To get along without a tribe makes you a fool. To give an inch to the other tribe makes you a sucker.

        I take Warren’s post to mean Tory is the antithesis of that kind of tribal pandering. So in fairness, are most Canadian politicians more or less. So far, at least.

        • Ronald O'Dowd says:

          Peter,

          I think I should hone in on my argument: IMHO, the positive outcomes that Trump instigates or co-opts are not why many people primarily vote for Trump.

          Trump’s so-called genius is his ability to traffic in fear generally and more specifically on immigration. That’s the top hot-button issue, above all others. It pits some Trump supporters versus the unknown and vaguely threatening outsider, namely the immigrant, legal or otherwise.

          That’s what drives many Trump supporters to the polls. Trump knows this all too well and that’s why immigration is the key election driver at seemingly every campaign rally.

          It’s my contention that no issue moves more people into the Trump column than immigration. Immigration sells. Trump instincts are regrettably dead-on so be highly skeptical as regards polling going into the midterms.

          • pierre lawayne says:

            It’s not Trump I’m worried about. He’s just the puppet. It’s the string pullers hiding in the dirt beneath the shine that have created the times we live in. They always do and they always will.

          • Wayne McDonald III says:

            I think Ronald is reading into reality what he wants to believe regarding Trump message of fear. It’s not fear alone it’s about ‘masters in their own home” i.e. maitre chez nous. And economic nationalism increases friction for outsiders.

            Trump like Jean Chretien is willfully ambigious as any effective politician should be. All about capturing voter intensity on election day.

            For example, recall that Trump is pro-legal immigrants “big beautiful door” visual. Also his family: (his first wife, mother, 3rd wife were/are all legal immigrants). It’s the Democratic Party that conflates both legal and undocumented immigrants in their own effort to capture voter intensity…pretending Trump is a traditional republican in or to pin the tail on the elephant with every gaffe which has no effect against his entertainment value.

            Legal defenses against territorial and cultural encroachments are a very human behaviour that Trump is appealing to. The degree to which it is exacted in law is hard to empirically measure. “Maitre chez nous” rhetoric would including rounding up 11 million undocumented citizens; the point being, forget the past, :”we have no country, without borders” is about voter intensity so Ronald is correct there.

            And we have seen this in our own country with Quebec nationalism. So let the nationalism grow under Trump for two more years. See how bad it will be. I think the Dems will by that point be able to find that voter intensity, it just depends who the flag bearer is Warren or Bloomberg or Shultz…

            Prediction: Dems will not take the House unless the polling is more dire, the voter intensity is not with the Dems, you see..

    • doconnor says:

      People claiming the threat of Hilter was exaggerated was a big reason he was able to gain power.

      • The Doctor says:

        You’re bang-on there. There was a lot of “oh, I think this Hitler fellow is someone with whom we can do business.” One great account of that mentality among the American business and state department elite is in Eric Larson’s excellent book In The Garden of Beasts, which I highly recommend.

  5. Mohammed says:

    You are “volunteering”?! You mean you aren’t getting paid! That’s ridiculous.

    Warren, your advice is worth money. Tory should not be a cheapskate. He has good campaign money. He should pay you!

    You have children to support. A retirement to pay for. As a fan, I think you should stop volunteering and start getting paid work. I’m sure any of your readers would provide you a reference.

    And if that doesn’t work, you could always drive Uber.

  6. Doc says:

    editor’s note: Amanda Galbraith is on that list twice

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