It was 7:07 p.m. on a warm Thursday in June when the Liberal campaign had its greatest scare.
Senior staff for Kathleen Wynne were a few minutes into a nightly conference call when the Ottawa Citizen posted a story about the Ontario Provincial Police collecting documents at the Ontario Legislature that day. The officers were investigating Dalton McGuinty’s former chief of staff over the alleged destruction of records related to the billion-dollar cancellations of two gas-fired power plants.
As Bob Lopinski, head of the party’s war room, read the story over the phone, the campaign team’s hearts sank. Suddenly, the Liberals’ greatest liability had been thrust into the spotlight. A government with a history of spending scandals was making a bid for a rare fourth term, and its Achilles heel had suddenly been bared.
The June 5 story was the worst moment in the worst week for the Liberals, who were battling to keep Ms. Wynne in power after the New Democrats rejected her budget and forced a snap election. The bad news had started the previous Thursday, when the Progressive Conservatives released leaked documents revealing the Liberals were looking to bail out MaRS, a not-for-profit research organization.
Then, Ms. Wynne had a shaky debate performance, during which PC Leader Tim Hudak and the NDP’s Andrea Horwath tag-teamed her on the gas-plant scandal.
The Premier looked defensive as Mr. Hudak channelled Brian Mulroney, repeatedly asking her why she had not objected to the cancellations as a cabinet minister: “Why didn’t you just say no?”
Just one week from voting day, Ms. Wynne was in danger of losing control of the campaign.
On the night of Saturday, June 7, the Premier’s team – led by strategist David Herle and organizational guru Patricia Sorbara – convened an emergency conference call. They tore up the schedule for the rest of the campaign and redeployed.
By Monday morning, they had organized a photo opportunity at a school in Cambridge, Ont., the first of several that week, where Ms. Wynne drove two messages: that electing Mr. Hudak, with his agenda of cost-cutting, would put public services at risk; and that voting for Ms. Horwath would split her vote and help Mr. Hudak win.
It was a dramatic change for a campaign to make, especially with only five days to go. But the Premier pulled it off flawlessly, projecting a calm competence that gave no hint of the scramble behind the scenes.
“She gathered herself and went out there and I don’t think anybody saw an ounce of panic or fear in her face,” Mr. Herle said in an interview.
And in the end, it would prove enough to put the focus back on a risky but simple promise made by Mr. Hudak weeks earlier, at a country club in Barrie, that would decide the election.
The Progressive Conservatives knew from polling that many supporters hadn’t bothered to vote in 2011 because they were uninspired by the party’s centrist platform.
So Mr. Hudak and his advisers decided to motivate them with a truly conservative plan: cuts to spending, a balanced budget, lower corporate taxes. Many Liberals, they calculated, would be angry enough over the gas plants to vote NDP or not come to the polls at all. They also looked to play to the greatest strength of the conservative brand – the economy – by promising to create one million jobs over eight years.
Such a right-wing agenda was in line with Mr. Hudak’s principles: A small-government conservative, he had cut his teeth in the budget-shrinking administration of Mike Harris in the 1990s.
At the heart of the Tory team were Ian Robertson, a former charity executive and Mr. Hudak’s chief of staff; and Clark Savolaine, a young, brainy American with a passion for policy. Amanda Philp ran the war room and strategist Geoff Owen travelled with Mr. Hudak.
The PCs calculated that the most important thing to do in the campaign was present Mr. Hudak as a serious leader. For that reason, they surprised almost everyone when they opened with a series of policy rollouts instead of attacking the Liberals.
“Tim’s lesson in 2011 was that he spent a lot of time talking about what the other guys did wrong but not enough time talking about what he can do,” said Mr. Robertson, a slender man with a small pair of spectacles and an impish grin.
They ran a highly targeted campaign – in part to save money and in part to better control their message. Mr. Hudak typically did one or two media events a day, most of them within driving distance of Toronto.
On the Friday morning at the end of the first week, he made the bold pledge that would define the fight. Standing in that country club, he promised to cut 100,000 jobs from the public sector to balance the budget.
“It’s not easy, I take no joy in this, but it has to be done,” Mr. Hudak told the audience. “Will it mean fewer teachers? It does.”
Nearly everyone was blindsided, including Tory MPPs.
Campaign headquarters told them the night before that Mr. Hudak would be detailing his plan for balancing the books, but did not give them the job cut figure, several later said. It was not until after the announcement that the central campaign held a conference call with MPPs.
Tories across the province heard about the issue constantly at the doors.
“I was getting some pushback in places that had been supportive before,” said Doug Holyday, who ultimately lost his Toronto seat.
Added Todd Smith, an incumbent in eastern Ontario: “It was brutal.”
Those who crafted the promise seemed genuinely not to expect it to whip up such opposition. They thought people would see it the way they did: In order to rein in spending, some tough measures would have to be taken.
“What was surprising to me was how few people concluded that we had a big fiscal problem that needed to be dealt with,” Mr. Robertson said.
Ms. Wynne couldn’t believe what she was hearing. She was on her campaign bus after touring an engineering firm in Kingston that morning when she heard about Mr. Hudak’s pledge.
“I was incredulous,” the Premier told The Globe and Mail. “It was amazing to me, quite frankly, and it stayed amazing to me that he would think that that would resonate with people.”
At Liberal campaign headquarters in downtown Toronto, staff were equally stunned. After watching Mr. Hudak’s announcement in their offices, they gathered in the hallways and crafted a swift response. Writer Scott Feschuk bashed off a new stump speech for Ms. Wynne as her bus rolled down Highway 401. When she reached her next stop an hour later, at a medical supply company in Trenton, she was more animated than she had been all week.
“Tim Hudak’s jobs plan is to turn paycheques into pink slips for 100,000 people,” she said. “Let me spell this out for Mr. Hudak because he is obviously struggling with this notion: You don’t create jobs by cutting jobs.”
With one announcement, Mr. Hudak had given the Liberals exactly the campaign they had dreamed of.
Over the previous year, Ms. Wynne and her team spent many hours discussing what to run on. The Premier wanted to put forward a hefty agenda in keeping with her activist background. It would ultimately include a new pension plan, billions in funding for infrastructure and raises for front-line social services workers.
In the fall, Mr. Herle – a large, extroverted man with a head of curly grey hair – hunkered down alone at his cottage outside the city. He pored over electoral maps and polling data, and tried to plot a course to victory. His conclusion was that the Liberals needed to set up a head-to-head fight with Mr. Hudak, portraying him as a radical bent on reckless cuts, while marginalizing the NDP.
Mr. Herle also saw opportunities for the party to grow its base, both by taking away traditionally left-of-centre ridings in downtown Toronto from the NDP, and by targeting seats on the fringes of the GTA held by Tories. Both places had seen an influx of middle-class, centrist voters, whether in new condos or suburbs, that he felt were natural liberals.
Meanwhile Ms. Sorbara, a veteran political staffer with a reputation as a hard-driving taskmaster, whipped the party into shape organizationally. She switched it to the federal Liberalist database to help target potential supporters in swing ridings, and bought new software to scrape census data to feed into it.
As soon as Mr. Hudak made his pledge, the Liberals pounced.
“You can design a strategy… but you can never really hope your opponents will play their parts as well as they did,” Mr. Herle said. “We spent a lot of time thinking about how to suck these people into this trap. We didn’t expect them to walk into it.”
One particularly ominous ad showed members of a suburban family – including a little girl and her dog – literally vanishing one by one as a sombre announcer warned Mr. Hudak’s plan would force families out of the middle class. The unions piled on, too, filling the airwaves with dire warnings about the PC cuts.
Ms. Wynne set a frenetic pace on the campaign trail, packing in as many as seven events into 16-hour days. At her side was her partner, Jane Rounthwaite, and Andrew Bevan, her bookish principal secretary and a long-time friend. In contrast to Mr. Hudak’s strict message discipline, Ms. Wynne often improvised, giving long, complicated answers to questions. It broke the rules of political communications, but her advisers contend it added to her authenticity.
“She’s one of the most naturally gifted politicians I’ve ever met,” said Peter Donolo, who oversaw communications for the campaign. “Part of her appeal is that she comes from a different place than the typical, run-of-the-mill, overscripted politicians who speak in soundbites.”
The net effect was to show Ms. Wynne as an energetic, personable intellectual – the sort of leader who appeals to exactly the educated, middle-class demographic the party needed to win.
At every stop, the Premier warned Mr. Hudak’s cuts would damage public services. In her sharpest attack, she visited a water treatment centre in Walkerton, Ont. – where seven people died from drinking tainted water, a tragedy partly blamed on Mr. Harris’s cutbacks in the 1990s.
The Grits had to make a concerted effort to keep the message as serious as possible. On the day Ms. Wynne went to Walkerton, for instance, campaign staffers had started to joke that Mr. Hudak’s cuts could spell the end of Polkaroo – the beloved childrens’ show character on publicly funded TV Ontario. But Mr. Lopinski ordered the war room to keep a straight face.
“We could’ve gone nuts with Polkaroo, but then nobody would’ve heard about the hundred thousand,” he said.
His team did, however, allow itself to have fun on other matters. When economists pointed out a mathematical error in the Tories “million jobs” pledge, the Grits sent a staffer dressed as Sesame Street’s the Count to Mr. Hudak’s events.
It helped the Liberals that the NDP campaign failed to catch fire.
The party had been optimistic it could attract Liberals disaffected by the spending scandals. At the helm was Gissel Yanez, a seasoned strategist who had run both Ms. Horwath’s leadership campaign and her 2011 general election effort. The war room was led by Eoin Callan, a former journalist, while Jen Hassum ran the communications shop. They could also draw on a reserve of federal veterans, most notably Brian Topp, for advice.
But Ms. Horwath received little attention during the first two weeks of the campaign, unveiling a series of populist pledges while Mr. Hudak and Ms. Wynne dominated the agenda.
New Democrat strategists watched Mr. Hudak’s 100,000 job cuts pledge in horror: The announcement turned the focus of the campaign away from Liberal scandals by putting it on the PCs. Meanwhile, Ms. Wynne’s attacks on Ms. Horwath for rejecting a left-tilting budget resonated with Toronto voters.
Partway through the campaign, the party retooled. Ms. Horwath went on the attack, labelling the Liberals “corrupt” and pressing Ms. Wynne hard during the debate.
Liberal sources, however, say the debate was not as bad for them as it was generally perceived. A focus group set up to provide instantaneous reaction, for instance, constantly twisted their dials negative whenever Mr. Hudak began speaking, they said, but gave Ms. Wynne high marks.
Then, the OPP bombshell dropped and the Liberals seemed in jeopardy. As the clock ticked down, Ms. Wynne made her final mad dash.
Early on election day, things looked good to Mr. Robertson. Initial updates from party scrutineers at the polling stations showed strong voter turnout in Tory-friendly areas. As the day wore on, however, he noticed another trend: A lot of people in Liberal strongholds were also coming to vote.
“Our people were turning out,” he said. “But the Liberals and unions were being very successful in turning out even more of their people.”
That sealed Ms. Wynne’s victory. In trying to motivate his base with unabashedly right-wing policies, Mr. Hudak has inadvertently motivated the Liberals’ significantly more.
As her supporters filled an underground ballroom at the Sheraton Hotel in downtown Toronto, Ms. Wynne watched the results upstairs with her parents, children and three small grandchildren.
“In an election that close, it would have been impossible for me to know. It was going to depend on who came out to vote,” she said.
Partway through the count, she walked down the hall to a conference room where her staff had gathered. She was nervous, a source in the room said, reluctant to believe how well things were going. When it was finally clear she had won, campaign co-chair Tim Murphy and Elly Alboim, who worked with Ms. Wynne for over a year on debate preparation, turned to her to offer congratulations: “You’re the premier,” they said.
In the end, it wasn’t even close. The Liberals beat the Tories by more than 7 per cent of the popular vote, winning 58 of 107 seats.
For all the strategizing and organizational work – not to mention Mr. Hudak’s polarizing pledge – Mr. Herle contends one person deserves ultimate credit for that result. “We won because of Kathleen Wynne. That’s fundamentally what I believe to be true,” he said. “She’s a strong, ambitious person.”
Around 11 p.m., Ms. Wynne entered the ballroom amid a crush of supporters. As she stood at the podium, their cheers drowned her out.
“Whoa!” she said. “We did this.”
With a report from Adam Radwanski