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Philippe Couillard reflecting on future after stunning Liberal loss

Quebec Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard waves to supporters after he lost the general election to a majority CAQ government, Monday, October 1, 2018 in Saint-Felicien, Quebec.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jacques Boissinot

SAINT-FELICIEN, Que. _ Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard says he’s reflecting on his political future after his party was handed a stunning loss by the Coalition Avenir Quebec.

A dry-eyed Couillard spoke with conviction Monday night as he told the 50 or so supporters who gathered in his riding that he ended the campaign with his head held high.

“I am leaving Quebec in a much better state than I found it in 2014,” he said.

“I am proud of our accomplishments, confident in the future we have prepared, confident that our commitment is the right one.”

Couillard also thanked volunteers and his family, and congratulated the Coalition Avenir’s Francois Legault, whose victory he said was “complete and without ambiguity.”

Couillard was re-elected in his riding but said he plans to reflect on his political future over the next few days.

Earlier in the evening, it was a quiet crowd that gathered at a hotel in Couillard’s riding as hope of a second mandate quickly faded away.

Couillard became the third incumbent premier in a row to be defeated as Quebec voters delivered a majority victory to Francois Legault’s Coalition Avenir Quebec.

As the voting closed at 8 p.m., a few dozen people watched at the Liberal rally to see if the party would defy the polls that showed it trailing the Coalition Avenir Quebec.

The crowd in the half-filled room shifted nervously as the results began to roll in, showing the Coalition jumping to an early lead.

By 9 p.m., a few were putting on coats and leaving, as others continued to arrive straight from volunteer shifts where they’d campaigned until the last minute.

While the other leaders gathered in Quebec City and Montreal, the incumbent premier chose to spend election night some 250 kilometres north of the capital on the shores of Lac-Saint-Jean, in the Roberval riding he’s represented since 2014.

The only cheers and applause of the night came when their leader’s face flashed on the screen, showing Couillard leading in his own riding. He was re-elected.

Many in the crowd said they were disappointed but not surprised, given the strong hunger for change expressed in the polls.

“There’s a wind of change, unfortunately,” said Rodrigue Lavoie, expressing a familiar sentiment among Liberal supporters.

“Mr. Couillard had a good record, with the economy, with unemployment, everything. It’s a wind of change, no other way to explain it.”

Despite record-low unemployment, strong economic growth and billion-dollar budget surpluses, Couillard’s quest for a second mandate was never assured.

While the last polls showed Couillard’s Liberals almost neck and neck with Francois Legault’s Coalition Avenir Quebec, the incumbent premier trailed significantly when it came to the all-important voter intentions among French-speakers.

Throughout the campaign, Couillard pointed to his party’s four consecutive balanced budgets and warned Quebecers that choosing another party risked disrupting the province’s economic momentum.

He sought to present his as the “party of the economy” while also make big spending promises, including free public transit for seniors and students, more super-clinics and free daycare for four-year-olds.

But he paid a high price for those balanced budgets, as he was consistently hammered by his rivals for lowering the province’s health and education budgets in the first half of his mandate.

Faced with poll numbers that showed the Coalition far in the lead, Couillard decided to launch the election several days early, hoping the long campaign would give him time to narrow the gap.

He consistently attacked the front-running Legault for a controversial plan to “expel” immigrants who fail to pass a language and values test within three years of arrival.

He also accused his main rival of wanting to reduce immigration as the province faces a labour shortage.