Opinion: Liberal candidates carrying Trudeau’s baggage

If Justin Trudeau manages to pull off a victory on Oct. 21, he will have some major IOUs piled up with his candidates and Liberal troops on the ground. This is a sea change for Liberals, with far-reaching implications for Trudeau and his party.

Four years after Trudeau carried Liberals to victory on the shoulders of his own mass popularity, his party is in the midst of a very different campaign – one in which the candidates are out on the ground, making the case for a leader who is far less beloved than he was in 2015.

Over two days in Toronto this week, going door to door with Liberals in a city known as a stronghold for the party, it was clear that a number of voters, even loyal partisans, want some reassurances.

Trudeau’s name and face are far less visible – even non-existent – on the signs dotting the streets of downtown Toronto. His candidates are working hard to earn another term for the Liberals, but they’re doing a lot of it on their own steam.

At the doorsteps in Beaches-East York, popular Liberal MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith regularly reminds his constituents that he has been an independent voice in Trudeau’s caucus over the past four years, not blindly following the leader and the PMO.

“I’ve always been a Liberal,” one woman says as she takes Erskine-Smith’s literature. “But in the last week, my vote is up for grabs.” She stresses the words “last week” as shorthand for the controversy that blew up in the campaign when multiple photos emerged of a younger Trudeau in blackface.

Liberals in Toronto have seen some bleak times over the past decade. When the party was reduced to third-party status in the 2011 election, many of the questions were existential: could the party continue to exist?

Along came the phenomenon known as Justin Trudeau, beloved son of a former prime minister, with some celebrity wattage all his own. Winning the leadership handily in 2013, Trudeau rebuilt the party from the top down. On that basis, Trudeau could – rightly, perhaps – claim that the party belonged to him, and that many MPs owed their place in Parliament to their celebrity leader.

Inside Trudeau’s circle, the huge victory of the 2015 election was seen as a payoff for two efforts: the leader and campaign narrative achieved the overall win, it was said, and the digital campaign sealed the majority.

Now, though, with the leader more of a mixed blessing – certainly not the top-down phenomenon Trudeau was four years ago – the on-the-ground campaign is almost certainly going to be more crucial. In short, Liberals aren’t going to win on Trudeau’s appeal alone this time. They’re going to need every tool they have at the grassroots. Candidates matter, and so does the ground game, maybe even more than the leader, or in spite of him in some cases.

Back in 2015, one of the Liberals’ main fights was to take over NDP-held ridings. Trudeau’s team pulled that off handily in downtown Toronto, effectively wiping out the NDP in all of the 416 area code. Erskine-Smith was one of the Liberals who took over a New Democrat riding.

In advance of this election, with the NDP flagging in the polls and in fundraising, it didn’t seem a stretch to believe that Liberals could perform that feat again.

But Beaches-East York is dotted with a not-insignificant number of NDP signs from rookie candidate Mae Nam. On Tuesday this week, her campaign office was buzzing with activity and volunteers.

On Erskine-Smith’s sprint around the riding on Tuesday night, several homeowners answered their doors saying they were still taking a look at the NDP and Liberals, and weighing up where to place their vote.

Overwhelmingly, Erskine-Smith says, climate change is the No. 1 issue coming up at the doors in the riding. “That’s the biggest concern, no question,” he says, describing how this riding, close to the water, seems particularly attuned to climate questions.

Erskine-Smith was hoping that Trudeau, on the national tour, would start talking up climate change more in the coming days of the campaign, so the candidate, in turn, could start telling people at the doorstep how important this issue was to his leader, too.

It’s an interesting snapshot of where this Liberal leader and his candidates are fighting two different campaigns. Candidates still need the help of the leader, but in this Liberal campaign of 2019, maybe not as much as they needed him four years ago.

It’s too early to predict what will happen on Oct. 21, but this basic dynamic of the 2019 Liberal campaign will almost certainly have an effect if Trudeau ends up as prime minister again: MPs will be less likely to feel that they owe their seats to him and his team.

Nor can Trudeau simply use these candidates and MPs as mere backdrops to a party that’s all about him, as he did during his first term in office.

That old 2015 slogan for Trudeau – “hope and hard work” – has a sharper meaning in the current campaign. Trudeau’s hopes may very well hinge on his candidates’ hard work – and he’ll owe them big if he does win.

Susan Delacourt is a national affairs writer.

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