No.1: Jenni Byrne
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Pierre Poilievre’s 2022 Conservative Party leadership campaign sold more than 300,000 party memberships. It drew thousands of supporters at rallies in Edmonton and Calgary and more than a thousand to events in Vancouver, Windsor, Ottawa and elsewhere. When the votes and points were tallied, Poilievre wiped the floor with his opponents, cruising to victory with nearly 70 per cent support.
These are wildly impressive figures for a leadership campaign, and they culminated in an impossible feat: uniting the bag of angry cats that is the Conservative Party of Canada, whose factions had spent the seven previous years mercilessly mauling each other. It was a campaign perfectly tailored to Poilievre’s strengths as an orator and a rabble-rouser. And it has put his campaign manager Jenni Byrne back atop the political hierarchy of backroom Ottawa.
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You may remember Byrne as the campaign manager who, back in 2011, delivered to Stephen Harper’s Conservative party its long-desired holy grail: a majority government. You more likely remember Byrne as the campaign manager who, four years later, led Harper’s Conservatives to a crushing defeat at the hands of Trudeau’s Liberals. The party had grown fat and listless, and Trudeau had emerged as a political juggernaut. Nevertheless, a long procession of detractors spent months laying blame for the loss on Byrne’s shoulders and attempting to drum her out of the party. In politics, your adversaries are on the outside but your enemies usually lie within.
Her critics underestimated her. Modern campaigns are no longer about persuading swing voters to like you. They are about motivating your supporters to turn out in larger numbers than your opponents. And no one understands the Conservative base—what they think, how they behave and what will get them out to the polls—better than Byrne. As one senior Conservative says, “Jenni is the base.”
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Jenni has spent more than a decade advising Canada’s top Conservative political leaders and candidates
She is also a measure of generational change in that base. The Bill Davis Red Tories and the Mulroney-era coalitionites are extinct. Byrne, the new prototypical Conservative, is cast from a different mould. Born and raised in Fenelon Falls, Ontario (population 2,500), Byrne joined Preston Manning’s Reform Party in 1997. She attended Georgian College and the University of Ottawa but graduated from neither. On more than one occasion, she has travelled vast distances with girlfriends to see Meat Loaf live in concert. She’s not just a Habs fan; she’s a Habs fan who enjoys trolling Leafs fans on Twitter. Byrne used to drive a custom Ford Mustang; now she drives a Bronco Sport. Yet when she lived in Ottawa, she settled downtown and went long stretches without owning a car at all, preferring instead to walk to work—behaviour that’s normally considered progressively urbane.
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She and Poilievre were romantically involved for a brief time, more than a decade ago, but there are obviously no hard feelings between them. Everyone who knows Byrne describes her as fiercely loyal, her ferocity never more evident than when she has been crossed. The people who get on her bad side tend to stay there. When she runs a campaign, she commands whatever room she’s in: she listens to those around the table but is unafraid to end the discussion, make a decision and move on. Even with strangers, Byrne’s view of politics is all about relationships. She knows how to read and understand polling data but sees it for what it is: a view from 30,000 feet, far too abstract. The reams of voter data culled from social media, similarly, are simultaneously intimate yet impersonal. For Byrne, the picture is incomplete without the view at ground level.
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Jenni canvassing with Thornhill MP Melissa Lantsman (then a candidate) in 2020
Despite the time pressures of managing a national campaign, she’ll make sure to stop in multiple ridings for an evening of door-to-door canvassing. It’s a task most politicians secretly despise, but Byrne has a passion for it. She brings no head-office entourage in tow and won’t accept any VIP treatment from the local candidate. She visits every home assigned to her, and she’s not the type to argue policy on the doorstep. She asks questions, she listens carefully and she says thank you.
All the while, she’s busy integrating all those conversations, along with polling and fundraising data and social media comments, into the sophisticated political algorithm inside her mind. This used to be called having your finger on the voters’ pulse, but that’s too clinical a phrase. Byrne looks voters in the eye. It’s a different kind of connection, one that’s harder to forsake.
And then she transplants that connection into the candidate for whom she works. With Harper, the graft didn’t always take, but Poilievre’s style is better suited to hers. Whatever role she ends up playing on his campaign team (manager? chair?), she’ll guide him deftly through controversy, calibrating responses that appeal to party stalwarts, and she’ll herd them to the polls like no one else can. Conservative fortunes are on the rise, and no one wants to be on Jenni Byrne’s bad side right now.
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This article appears in print in the March 2023 issue of Maclean’s magazine. Buy the issue for $9.99 or better yet, subscribe to the monthly print magazine for just $39.99.