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Officials with both opposition parties are privately worrying that many of their riding associations will suffer a cash disadvantage to Stephen Harper’s federal Conservatives both leading up to the campaign and during it. (DARRYL DYCK/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Officials with both opposition parties are privately worrying that many of their riding associations will suffer a cash disadvantage to Stephen Harper’s federal Conservatives both leading up to the campaign and during it. (DARRYL DYCK/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Conservatives poised to outspend opponents in key election battlegrounds Add to ...

The 2015 federal election will require political parties to work harder than ever to capture the attention of the electorate. This story is part of Adam Radwanski’s new assignment looking at how the party machines across the country are preparing.

Federal Liberals and New Democrats are bracing to be heavily outspent on the ground by the governing Conservatives in this year’s election.

All three leading parties can be expected to spend their national limit of more than $20-million during the official campaign period scheduled for next fall, and the Liberals’ recent fundraising success should allow them to join – though not match – the Conservatives in national prewrit advertising. But officials with both opposition parties are privately worrying that many of their riding associations will suffer a cash disadvantage both leading up to the campaign and during it.

“It’s a huge issue,” a Liberal official said, speaking on a background basis. “We spent a fair amount of last year internally sounding the alarm bells on this.”

Although the 2011 election demonstrated that riding resources do not always have a strong impact on results – as the NDP virtually swept Quebec despite minimal organization there – all parties expect closer on-the-ground battles this time. Members of their campaign teams commonly express the view that candidates’ ability to spend close to their limit – which ranges from about $90,000 to $120,000, depending on the number of voters – could provide decisive advantages where there are margins of victory under 10 per cent.

Among those potential advantages are the ability to pay for voter contact, including through phone banks or paid canvassers, and communications. While the “in and out” controversy following the last election will require parties to step carefully, rules around regional advertising are likely ambiguous enough to allow several local campaigns to pool together funds for city-wide ads; candidates who aren’t in close races, but have ample cash reserves, could also help allies by purchasing ads that will be seen both by their own voters and by those in neighbouring ridings.

The scale of the Conservatives’ current advantage is difficult to gauge, because riding associations’ 2014 financial returns will not be available until later this year. But a Globe and Mail review of the previous year’s returns found that, as of the end of 2013, Conservative riding associations cumulatively had more than $15-million in net assets, while the Liberals had under $8-million and the NDP less than $4-million.

As of the last filings, the Conservatives were continuing to widen the gap, topping the Liberals by nearly $1-million and the New Democrats by more than $2-million in local fundraising in 2013. And there appears a good chance they continued to pad their advantage in 2014, with a senior Conservative source expressing confidence the governing party’s riding assets now top $20-million.

That could give the Conservatives an equal or greater advantage to the one they had in the 2011 election, when their candidates cumulatively spent just under $20-million, Liberals spent less than $15-million and New Democrats about $7-million.

At the end of 2013, the Conservatives had 54 riding associations with more than $100,000 in net assets, next to eight for the Liberals and just one for the NDP. The Conservatives have some associations with much more money than they could spend during the campaign, which they are permitted to transfer to other ridings. (Among the richest is Employment Minister Jason Kenney’s in Calgary, which at the end of 2013 had over $360,000.)

An advantage of holding government has been that, aside from building their own war chests, cabinet ministers help draw guests to events in other ridings. Within opposition parties, the leaders are among the few able to achieve the same, and the Liberals avoid having Justin Trudeau do local fundraisers while the NDP uses Tom Mulcair that way only sparingly.

The Liberals were also hurt by nearly a third of their candidates failing to get at least 10 per cent of their ridings’ vote in 2011, thus not qualifying for a 60-per-cent public rebate of campaign expenses missed out on by a much smaller number of Conservative and NDP candidates.

But Liberals and New Democrats also concede Conservatives were quicker to adapt to new political financing rules that banned corporate, union and large personal donations. The need to seek out a large number of small donations required a culture change that was slow for the opposition parties nationally, and all the more so locally.

As evidence that such a change is now taking place, New Democrats can point to Quebec, where the majority of their riding associations are actively raising funds – a major shift considering the NDP didn’t even have associations in many ridings there before 2011. Those efforts netted nearly $330,000 in 2013, which was better than the Liberals (about $290,000) and Conservatives (just over $150,000) managed. But the last available information showed the NDP with only about $840,000 in net assets in Quebec, which was still less than the Conservatives had.

The Liberals say their “Victory Fund,” which asks supporters to make monthly donations split between the party and local associations, is starting to pay dividends. But they, too, are fighting an uphill battle in the province most important to their electoral fortunes. Their associations in Ontario, where the Liberals would need to win most ridings to have a shot at government, raised about $1.3-million in 2013 to bring them to about $4-million in net assets; the Conservatives brought in $1.8-million to bring them to $6.5-million.

Both New Democrats and Liberals expressed confidence that the 2014 filings, when they become available, will show them exceeding their previous year’s performance. But they also expected the Conservatives to have ramped up as the election draws closer.

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