How the Conservative party’s most popular Ontario MP came up short

She had a high profile, plenty of money, and oodles of volunteers. So why didn’t Milton’s Lisa Raitt win her federal-election race?
By Steve Paikin - Published on Nov 14, 2019
Lisa Raitt lost her seat in Milton to Adam van Koeverden in the 2019 federal election. (Adrian Wyld/CP)

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Ask anybody in Canada’s last Parliament who the most popular Conservative MP from Ontario was, and I’m betting the vast majority of folks would have picked the member for Milton.

Lisa Raitt had so many appealing qualities. She was a partisan, but not blindly or stupidly so. She was conservative enough for Stephen Harper to have put her in his cabinet in several senior portfolios. She was important enough in conservative circles for the current leader, Andrew Scheer, to have made her deputy party leader after he defeated her (along with many others) for the leadership in 2017. (She was the Conservatives’ first-ever female deputy party leader.)

She was highly respected on all sides of the House — so much so that Liberal MP Roger Cuzner once said of her, “She’s tough, quick, funny, and hard-working — she can give as good as she gets.”

When, in May 2015, Elizabeth May — suffering from the effects of too little sleep and too much cold medication — got in trouble for giving a rambling and humourless speech at a parliamentary press gallery dinner, it was Lisa Raitt who marched up onto the stage and rescued the Green party leader with a kindness and empathy rarely seen on Parliament Hill.

When Patrick Brown resigned as leader of the Ontario Tories, speculation was rampant that Raitt might leave Ottawa (as Brown did) and run for the provincial leadership. (She didn’t, backing her friend Caroline Mulroney instead.)

She won her seat (twice in Halton in 2008 and 2011, and once in Milton in 2015) with 48, 54, and 45 per cent of the vote. Other Conservatives might have garnered higher totals, but none was better liked or more highly respected.

All of which is to say, Lisa Raitt had every expectation on election night 2019 of being elected for a fourth time and of being in the conversation about potential replacements for Scheer, if he goes on to lose his confidence vote next April.

Instead, shockingly, she lost.

Her vote total dropped by more than 9 per cent, and Liberal rookie candidate and former Olympic kayaker Adam van Koeverden will become the new MP for Milton.

Certainly, the Conservative party’s lacklustre performance across Ontario didn’t help Raitt’s fortunes. Scheer’s party took only 36 of the 121 seats in Canada’s most populous province. But plenty of other well-known MPs were able to stave off the red Liberal tide across the province.​​​​​​​

Why couldn’t Raitt? Her campaign had everything you’d want to ensure success: a high-profile candidate, plenty of money, and oodles of volunteers.

“Where we went wrong was underestimating our opponent’s tactics,” acknowledged Raquel Franco, a volunteer on Raitt's campaign, at the Conservative Leadership Foundation’s election post-mortem at the Albany Club in Toronto this past Saturday. “We only tried to get the vote out among our supporters. Mr. van Koeverden didn’t. He went to everyone.”

Franco says that the Liberal campaign operated under the assumption that, if they could expand the electorate — not just bring out their known supporters — their candidate would win. She says that when the undecided vote broke in the last weekend of the campaign, it went 70 per cent for van Koeverden.

“Adam said ‘Forget the base; forget registered Liberals. We’re going to have faith that if everyone votes, we’ll win.’” Franco says. “And that hurt us because turnout was up.”

In fact, more than 10,000 more Miltonians marked their ballots in this election than had in 2015.

Of course, other Conservative mistakes made by the central campaign didn’t help either. “It seemed Andrew Scheer focused entirely on criticizing Justin Trudeau,” Franco says. “It let others frame Mr. Scheer. We have to accept the fact that we left that opening for the Liberals.”

Franco, 21, originally from Ottawa, is a fourth-year sports-broadcasting student at Ryerson University. She got interested in politics after Donald Trump’s upset victory for the American presidency. She then attended some of conservative professor Jordan Peterson’s lectures at the University of Toronto and got hooked. She became an intern in Raitt’s Ottawa office in the summer of 2018, got to know the MP well, and offered to work on the campaign team.

When she saw the returns coming in across the Greater Toronto Area on election night, she knew her candidate was in trouble. As perhaps the fastest-growing municipality in Ontario, Milton is becoming less rural and exurban and more suburban. Thousands of more liberal-minded voters, unable to afford to live in Toronto, have moved there since Raitt’s last victory in 2015. In other words, like so many other 905 ridings, it is becoming more liberal and, in this election, it went more Liberal. Raitt went on to lose the riding by more than 9,000 votes.

“She was incredible on election night,” Franco says of her candidate. “She just put a smile on her face, looked at her husband and kids and said, ‘Let’s go talk to people.’ She knew all eyes would be on her. She just said, ‘The voters are never wrong.’ She never let her disappointment show.”

At 51, Raitt still ought to have a bright future ahead of her,  whatever mission she chooses to pursue next. But that mission will not be in the House of Commons, which is where virtually everyone assumed she’d continue to make a contribution to public life in Canada.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentified Raquel Franco as Lisa Raitt's associate campaign manager. She was, in fact, a campaign volunteer. It also miscalled the Conservative Leadership Foundation the Conservative Leadership Federation. TVO.org regrets these errors.

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