B.C. party leaders attempt to strike balance between vision and attacks

The B.C. NDP and the B.C. Liberals are working on striking the right balance between promoting their own ideas while dismantling their opponents.

The official campaign doesn't kick off until April, but both parties are already focused on winning May 9

Premier Christy Clark greets visitors from Surrey at the B.C. Legislature on Thursday, March 16, 2017. (Mike McArthur/CBC News)

Leaning up against a wall in Norm Letnick's office sits a guitar, a few boxes and some paintings by his wife that previously hung next to his desk. With an election looming, B.C.'s agriculture minister and the Liberal candidate for Kelowna-Lake Country has everything ready to go because he can't be sure he'll be coming back.

"I come here as a servant of my constituents. If I am not returned it is because I didn't do a good enough job at delivering on their priorities," said Letnick.  "And that's fair, if that is what happens."

Letnick's mindset is similar to what most provincial politicians are going through. Now that the final legislative session before the May 9 provincial election is over, the focus is off legislating and on to campaigning.

Starting at zero

B.C. Liberal Leader Christy Clark and B.C. NDP Leader John Horgan now have seven weeks to chart a course to victory. It's a journey that will include putting forward a vision for the province but, potentially just as important, exposing the weaknesses of the opponent.

"I always approach elections as though we are starting at zero. Everyone starts at zero. We all start at the same place," said Clark from her car on the way to the airport to leave Victoria. "The question is going to be do they [voters] want to keep us on track and who will they trust to keep the economy growing."

"It's not perfect for everybody but economic circumstances are a lot better than they ever have been compared to the rest of the country." 

Money to go around

Clark's message of a strong economy is not new. But reminding voters is the only way to ensure the message sticks.

That's why behind the scenes both major parties have been working to harness the most important thing in politics: information about potential voters and effective ways of reaching them.

Getting that information costs money.  

Here's where the B.C. Liberals have an advantage, having raised $12.4 million in 2016 and an additional $2 million already reported in 2017.

The B.C. NDP raised around $6.2 million in 2016 and has less of a war chest. That means less cash to hire campaign workers who can find and catalog those potential voters and then lean on them closer to election day.

​"We look at the NDP and the Liberals and you might say either way you are going to have a competent government. But one of them is a much more competent political machine than the other and helps to explain why they keep winning over and over again," said UBC political scientist David Moscrop, in reference to the four straight B.C. Liberal election victories.  "And over time that builds up and they learn to exploit every advantage they have got."

Balancing vision and attack

John Horgan is surrounding by members of the B.C. NDP caucus on last day of legislative session. (Mike McArthur/CBC News)

Where the NDP needs to counter this, according to Moscrop, there's a fine balance between Horgan presenting his own vision, while also attacking Clark. 

"They have to discredit their opponent while providing themselves as an alternative," said Moscrop. "They need to balance this attack side and ... defending themselves as a credible alternative without seeming too nasty."

Horgan was already testing that messaging out in his final press conference of the legislative session.

"Some people are working two or three jobs at minimum wage just to make ends meet. The premier until recently was working one job and getting two salaries. That is not a B.C. I want to support," said Horgan, referencing Clark's former leader's stipend. "I am on your side, I want to be working with you. Let's get rid of the government and replace it with one that will be working for you."

A message that will no doubt be echoed now that legislating is done and the running has started in earnest.