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O'Toole campaigned on a renewed, moderate Conservative party and lost — what now?

OSHAWA, Ont. — Erin O'Toole watched Monday's election results trickle in at a hockey rink in Oshawa, Ont., but the Conservative leader who bet that putting a centrist image on the party would win it more seats may have met his Waterloo.
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OSHAWA, Ont. — Erin O'Toole watched Monday's election results trickle in at a hockey rink in Oshawa, Ont., but the Conservative leader who bet that putting a centrist image on the party would win it more seats may have met his Waterloo. 

The Canadian Press is projecting that Justin Trudeau's incumbent Liberals will pick up enough seats to form a minority government, falling short of the majority it had sought. As of about 11:50 p.m., the Liberals were elected or leading in 156 seats compared to the Conservatives at 123. 

O'Toole had campaigned on a pitch for Canadians not to reward Trudeau for triggering an election in the midst of a fourth wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, when taxpayer money could have been better spent on battling the novel coronavirus.

The 48-year-old Tory leader also tried to convince voters his "renewed" party wasn't their "dad's" or "grandfather's" Conservative party. O'Toole told voters he was a proponent of reproductive and LGBTQ rights, and he introduced more environmentally minded and worker-friendly policies. 

Strategists say what comes next for O'Toole, who faced criticism from within his party's for moving it from the right to the political centre, will depend on whether the Tories win the popular vote or whether he can show members he's made gains.

"It depends what the election results look like," said Shakir Chambers, political strategist, who helped Doug Ford's Progressive Conservatives win the 2018 provincial election in Ontario.

"Even if he doesn't get the popular vote, but the seat count has been increased, Liberals are weakened … in a minority Parliament you're looking at 18 to 24 months, I think it's a credible argument to make," Chambers said of O'Toole remaining as leader.

Chambers, however, said O'Toole will be under a lot of pressure if his move to the political centre, which could cost him votes in Alberta to make gains in Ontario, doesn't pay off.

"I think this experiment with a moderate Conservative party just might be over," Chambers said. "It's going to be a challenge for him."

If O'Toole is wondering what a fight to stay on as leader could look like, he should look no further than what happened to incumbent Saskatchewan MP and former leader Andrew Scheer.

In the 2019 federal election, Scheer fell short of defeating the first-term Liberal government after it was embroiled in months of turmoil over the SNC-Lavalin affair and the revelation that broke on the campaign trail that Trudeau had worn blackface multiple times in his youth.

Despite helping more than two dozen more Conservative MPs go to Ottawa in 2019 compared with the 2015 election, Scheer resigned after facing a campaign of pressure from within the party.

As the likely Liberal victory began to materialize Monday night, Conservative volunteer Tom Quigley said O’Toole’s moderate positions may have surprised voters without enough time to win them over during the short election campaign, when many people were distracted by the pandemic.

“They expected a traditional conservative message and they woke up to find out they had a different type of leader, a more inclusive leader, a leader that was interested in listening,” Quigley said at party headquarters in Oshawa.

O'Toole had campaigned over the past few days saying he would be the first prime minister to hail from the Greater Toronto Area, where he called home and made a career as a lawyer before entering politics.

He took the reins of the party last August after running as the "true blue" candidate, appealing to the party's Western and social conservative base. It wasn't long, however, before grumblings began within the Conservative tent, as O'Toole introduced a consumer carbon price on fuel — despite campaigning during the leadership race to axe the Liberal policy.

His apparent flip-flopping continued during the campaign. He had backtracked on a pledge to protect the rights of health professionals from referring patients for services for which workers have moral objections, such as medical assistance in dying or abortions.

O'Toole also found himself on the defensive for making a platform promise to repeal the Liberal ban on some 1,500 models of firearms, including the AR-15. After dodging days of questions about the policy, the leader make the unconventional move of inserting a footnote in the platform, promising to keep the ban in place — a policy deeply unpopular with gun owners and farmers.

The Liberals have also repeatedly attacked O'Toole for not requiring his candidates to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19, a move the Liberals say pandered to "anti-vaxxers" in the Tory caucus at the cost of preserving public health.

O'Toole has said Trudeau is playing politics with vaccines to divide Canadians and made it a rule that those in the Conservative campaign who are not fully vaccinated have to undergo daily rapid tests.

Polls closed at 9:30 p.m. in that province and in Quebec, where the party made a concerted push to pick up seats over the Bloc Québécois and Liberals by promising to give the province more power over immigration and more money with no strings attached. 

"The maximum we've done in Quebec since the merger of the party was 12 (seats), so if we achieve that, or we surpass that, this is actually like something that was unprecedented,” Marc-Olivier Fortin, the party's campaign manager for Quebec, said Monday night.

"We'd be happy with 11, 12, 13 — who knows," he added in an interview at the party's election night headquarters.

The Tories entered double-digit territory in Atlantic Canada, picking up 10 seats in the region, which had been swept by the Liberals in 2015. 

Among the seats they flipped was South Shore— St. Margaret's in Nova Scotia, ousting Bernadette Jordan, the Liberal fisheries minister. Conservative candidate Rick Perkins had been hoping that the anger and unrest between commercial fishers and Indigenous fishers over the opening of a Mi'kmaq lobster fishery would swing voters his way. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 20, 2021.

Stephanie Taylor and Holly McKenzie-Sutter, The Canadian Press