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B.C. Liberal candidates try to keep party brand from derailing campaigns

Every election campaign, big or small, comes down to this: Identify your supporters. Make sure they vote.

But tactics, technology, and circumstances change. For B.C. Liberal candidates who have enjoyed being part of a winning team over the last three elections, Campaign 2013 feels different. Their party is fighting for survival. The polls currently point to a Liberal wipe-out on May 14.

There is a sense, on the ground, that this is not a provincial Liberal campaign, but a series of campaigns in the 85 provincial ridings. Every candidate for himself, or herself.

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In downtown Langley, a half-dozen strategists assembled last week to set up Mary Polak's campaign office. Headquarters is in a storefront in an plaza that hasn't had a facelift for some time, but there is a Starbucks nearby to keep the troops adequately caffeinated.

The group met in the still-bare office to review draft campaign material, set the ground rules for social media, and devise events to connect their candidate with Langley voters.

Todd Hauptman, campaign manager, bluntly told his organizers that their focus is on winning this seat.

It is clear they are not riding on the coattails of a broader provincial campaign.

On his laptop, he showed the team a planned mail-out that features Ms. Polak against a green background – the Today's BC Liberals logo is played down. "A little bit of a rebrand," says Alise Mills, Ms. Polak's communications guru. "There's a freshness there."

In fact, the leader's name is not being heavily promoted by the party right now. In the 2009 campaign, it was Gordon Campbell and the B.C. Liberals. Now it's "Today's BC Liberals" – perhaps not a surprise, given Premier Christy Clark's low approval rating in the polls. "Christy Clark for B.C." is relegated to the bottom corner, in small lettering, on the lawn signs.

Co-operation is happening, but on a local level. John Cameron, Rich Coleman's campaign manager, dropped by Ms. Polak's campaign office to pitch a joint campaign ad between the two candidates.

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"That's a campaign flyer delivered to every home for six grand," he says, pulling up a draft flyer on his well-weathered laptop.

Like Ms. Polak, Mr. Cameron's candidate is seeking re-election in what should be a strong B.C. Liberal seat. But he acknowledges some anxiety, and tells the team that his priority is bringing disaffected Liberal voters back home.

The Coleman campaign normally sends out letters to voters it has identified as undecided. "Hand-written – folks always open those," Mr. Cameron said. They would normally send out as many as 5,000.

"But this time we might move to a different target. We might shift to the people who voted for us last time but are undecided this time. We might get more precise this time."

The era of town halls by telephone also appears to be over. Candidates are looking to connect with voters through social media platforms that were inconsequential in 2009. And they need to make personal connections that are more difficult this time around.

"My dad is 84 years old, and he only has a cellphone," noted Ms. Polak. So if the party's central phone banks aren't connecting, the party's database, WIN2013, will be a resource for custom-content mail-outs, where voters have been identified by issues of concern.

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Bill Bennett, the Liberal MLA for Kootenay East, pioneered the independent-yet-affiliated campaign in 2009.

"I discovered if my wagon was hitched entirely to the party, it was easy to vote against the party and forget about me," he said in an interview. And that is going to be even more pronounced this time out.

"It's a more challenging political reality for us to deal this time," he said. "The challenge will be, are they going to vote at all. They are just fed up with our party brand."

This spring, Mr. Bennett's tactics seem to be in vogue. "To me, it feels like 85 little campaigns," said Ms. Polak. "In 2009, in 2005, there was more of a sense of a provincial decision."

Helping voters separate the individual candidate from the Liberal brand won't show up in any strategic plan from party headquarters, but it may prove to be the key innovation in the Liberal campaign toolbox.

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About the Author
B.C. politics reporter

Based in the press gallery of the B.C. Legislature in Victoria, Justine has followed the ups and downs of B.C. premiers since 1988. She has also worked as a business reporter and on Parliament Hill covering national politics. More


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