Stephen Harper proved in 2011 that he could win a majority government without much help from Quebec.
Four years later, however, federal Conservatives appear to be making inroads in the battleground province.
Harper currently holds just five of Quebec’s 75 seats, with four MPs sitting in cabinet: Denis Lebel (infrastructure, intergovernmental affairs), Steven Blaney (public safety), Christian Paradis (international development), and Maxime Bernier (junior minister of small business and tourism).
The fifth Quebec Tory MP, Jacques Gourde, serves as a parliamentary secretary.
And even though Paradis has already announced that he won't run again in the fall, a crop of new recruits — coupled with recent polling numbers showing the party is competitive in Quebec — suggest Tories shouldn't be written off in la belle province.
On Monday, popular Victoriaville mayor Alain Rayes confirmed, after months of courting from Conservatives, that he wants to run for the Tories in Richmond–Arthabaska. The riding is currently held by independent MP André Bellavance, formerly a member of the Bloc Québécois, but was a Progressive Conservative seat between 1997 and 2003.
"I don't want to be on the sidelines," Rayes said at a morning press conference where he also mentioned the "extraordinary" blue sky.
Back in February, a senior Tory source told The Globe and Mail that "people on the ground feel that if (Rayes) runs, he will win."
Rayes' announcement comes just days after Gérard Deltell, a veteran provincial politician and member of Coalition for Quebec's Future, also made the jump to federal politics.
Deltell, 50, showed off a Progressive Conservative membership card from the 1980s at a news conference last week where he said he hopes to win a seat in the Quebec City riding of Louis-Saint-Laurent. The riding, currently held by the NDP's Alexandrine Latendresse, was Tory blue from 2006 to 2011. Latendresse is not running again.
"I am blue, true blue, an old blue," Deltell said. "I'm coming home and I'm really happy about it."
And so is Harper, evidently. The prime minister told reporters at an event in British Columbia last week that he was "encouraged" by Deltell's news.
"I think his candidacy and that of others indicates that Quebecers are increasingly recognizing their priorities in our party," Harper said.
Late last week, Jean Pelletier, former head of Quebec City's much-loved winter carnival, announced he is seeking a nomination in Beauport–Limoilou. The riding is currently held by NDP MP Raymond Côté.
In January, well-known Quebec TV personality Pascale Déry launched a bid for the Tory nomination in the Montreal riding of Mount Royal. Once represented by prime minister Pierre Trudeau, the riding has been held for more than 15 years by respected Liberal MP Irwin Cotler. He, too, is not running again.
Déry, 38, said at the time that she wants to be "the new face of conservatism" in the province. She was joined by Blaney, who endorsed her as someone who represents a new generation of political leadership and can "put Montreal back in government."
Grits have held the riding for more than 75 years — Cotler won with just 41 per cent of the vote in 2011.
Both Dery and Deltell attended Rayes' announcement on Monday.
The Toronto Star also reported last week that former Atlanta Braves baseball player Dominic Therrien wants a Tory nomination in Quebec. Former foreign affairs minister Lawrence Cannon, currently Canada's ambassador to France, is also reportedly mulling over another run.
What are the polls saying?
Meanwhile, polls suggest Tory fortunes are improving in the province, even if the battle for first place remains between Thomas Mulcair's New Democrats and Justin Trudeau's Liberals.
Last Friday, an Ipsos Reid poll put the Conservatives at 21 per cent support in Quebec. The NDP was ahead at 34 per cent, followed by the Liberals at 27 per cent. The Bloc Québécois, under controversial new leader Mario Beaulieu, was at 16 per cent. The online survey is considered accurate within 3.5 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.
A poll from Abacus Data in late March pointed to an even closer race in the province, with Liberals at 28 per cent, the NDP at 27 per cent, and Tories at 23 per cent. The Bloc was at 17 per cent support.
And a poll from Léger in late March suggested the NDP in Quebec sat at 30 per cent support, with Liberals at 28 per cent, and Tories at 22 per cent. The Bloc was at 15 per cent.
According to ThreeHundredEight.com’s Eric Grenier, Tories were sitting at just 13 per cent in the province in early November.
It has been suggested by at least one pundit that the Tories' upward swing in the province in recent months may be linked to terrorism fears after the killing of Quebec soldier Patrice Vincent in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu and the shooting death of Cpl. Nathan Cirillo in Ottawa last October.
A poll from Léger in February suggested that 72 per cent of Quebecers were initially supportive of Bill C-51, the government's anti-terrorism legislation.
Harper's opposition to the wearing of the niqab, a Muslim face veil, during citizenship ceremonies also appears to have resonated with Quebecers.
It was in Victoriaville, after all, that the prime minister announced the federal government's plan to appeal a federal court ruling overturning a ban on the wearing of the niqab during the ceremony. Harper told his Quebec audience that hiding one's face while taking the oath is "not the way we do things."
A March 21 poll from Ipsos Reid suggested eight in 10 Quebecers agree that the face-covering veils worn by some Muslim women are symbols of oppression and, as Harper stated in the House of Commons, "rooted in a culture that is anti-women."
Ninety-one per cent of Quebecers surveyed told the firm they support a requirement that people show their faces when taking the oath of citizenship.
With polls pointing to a close federal race, particularly in vote-rich Ontario, a few extra Tory MPs in Quebec could very well mean the difference between victory and defeat, or a majority or minority government.
Labour groups in the province are already mobilizing as the October voting date draws nearer.
The Confederation of National Trade Unions, Quebec's second-biggest labour group, announced Friday it will campaign against Tory candidates in parts of Quebec and Ontario.
The Quebec Federation of Labour, the largest labour group in the province, has publicly vowed to do everything it can to stymie the Conservatives.
In 2006, Harper won 10 seats in Quebec with roughly 25 per cent of the vote — lauded at the time as a breakthrough. By 2011, Tories lost half those seats and and saw their vote share drop nearly 10 percentage points.
This fall, there will be three more seats — 78, in total — up for grabs in Quebec because of riding redistribution. It appears Tories won't be satisfied to take just five.
With files from The Canadian Press
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