Bernier’s chances slim in Portage-Lisgar
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This past week, I walked out of a store in Winnipeg and was greeted by PPC leader Maxime Bernier’s smiling face plastered on a giant purple SUV.
That startling reminder that Bernier is running in the Portage-Lisgar byelection raises the question: is this all a stunt, as some of Bernier’s opponents claim, or does the man from Beauce, Que., stand a chance in southern Manitoba?
Portage-Lisgar has been a rumoured target of Bernier’s since the 2021 election when the PPC candidate came in second place, scoring a respectable 22 per cent of the vote, though far behind Conservative Candice Bergen’s 53 per cent. The occasion of a byelection offered Bernier a low-risk and likely irresistible opportunity to boost his sagging profile and raise funds.
Even if he doesn’t win, Bernier will likely benefit from the effort. And a respectable showing will add some wind to the PPC’s sails.
So what does he have going for him?
Asked to justify his decision to run far from his home, Bernier argued that Portage-Lisgar’s francophone population would likely support a francophone candidate like him.
Bernier might be on to something. Many members of minority groups engage in “affinity voting”: casting their ballots for candidates that share certain qualities or characteristics with them. But that won’t help the PPC leader with the majority of residents who are not francophones.
Bernier may benefit from challenging the Tories on their own right-wing turf. The Conservative party has not veered to the centre under the leadership of Pierre Poilievre. But Bernier has identified issues that might resonate with right-of-centre voters in Portage-Lisgar which the Conservatives are reluctant to touch.
Bernier, for example, has presented himself as a resolutely pro-life candidate, and challenged the Conservatives to clarify if they favour any term limit whatsoever on abortion. Poilievre, in contrast, has committed not to introduce any abortion-related legislation if he becomes prime minister. The strategy is sound, but it leaves the Conservatives vulnerable to precisely the type of insurgency Bernier is mounting in Portage-Lisgar.
From abortion to immigration to what books are allowed in school libraries, Bernier may be well-positioned to exploit Tory squeamishness on a whole range of hot-button issues.
This is particularly true because he is running in a byelection. In a general election, small parties are hammered by the logic of strategic voting: no one wants to waste their vote on a small party that everyone knows will end up losing. But, since a byelection does not affect who forms the government, people are more likely to vote sincerely, guided by their own beliefs and concerns rather than by any strategic consideration.
With the Liberal government in Ottawa not going anywhere for the time being, the people of Portage-Lisgar might take the opportunity of the byelection to vote their conscience.
If those are the factors favouring Bernier, what are the ones hurting his chances?
First, there is now convincing evidence that the PPC’s strong result in the 2021 election was due in large part to public dissatisfaction with pandemic-era restrictions and lockdowns. This was particularly true in Portage-Lisgar, where many communities resisted these lockdowns and rewarded Bernier for his resolutely anti-lockdown rhetoric with their votes.
But the pandemic is in the rearview mirror, and it is likely the PPC’s support crested in 2021. Bernier may hope to exploit some residual resentment about lockdowns. But the daunting reality for him is that both Poilievre and the Conservatives’ local candidate, Branden Leslie, were strongly opposed to lockdowns as well.
Maybe, in another world where Jean Charest was the party leader and Cameron Friesen the local candidate, Bernier could successfully run as an anti-lockdown, pro-freedom candidate. But with Poilievre and Leslie, there is little room for him to manoeuvre.
Most importantly, I think: Bernier is not from Portage-Lisgar. He understands that public opinion in the seat is generally on the right. But, as a parachute candidate, he simply cannot understand the complexities, nuances and little idiosyncrasies of life in the communities of this seat. Leslie, in contrast, was born in Portage la Prairie and raised on a farm south of town.
Bernier’s run reminds me of MP Derek Sloan, a right-wing firebrand and MP who was expelled from the Conservative caucus. Sloan, despite hailing from Ontario, decided to parachute himself into a rural Alberta seat in the 2021 election. The thinking was that rural Alberta is typically quite right wing, and so is Sloan, so the Ontarian would surely be welcomed with open arms.
But, in fact, Sloan was shellacked by a Conservative candidate who was born and had spent his whole life in the seat, and knew the local communities like the back of his hand.
A similar fate likely awaits Bernier in Portage-Lisgar.
That purple SUV may ultimately come in handy for Bernier to drive home to Quebec after this byelection concludes.
Royce Koop is a professor of political studies at the University of Manitoba and academic director of the Centre for Social Science Research and Policy.