The Take-Away: Canada’s Conservative Party leadership campaign is looking to come down to Peter McKay and Erin O’Toole. Regardless of who wins, the leader will have to work hard to fight perceptions of being the party of oil, religion, and regressive environmental views. Despite a high-number of ballots being cast at this years convention, they will also face the daunting task of expanding the voter base after they win.
As a week that was almost as unprecedented as the times we are living comes to an end, it almost seems fitting that the Conservative Party will announce the results of their leadership race on Sunday. The new leader will be well-positioned financially to enter an election, but what about the state of the party? And the even bigger question, will the new leader be able to defeat Justin Trudeau?
Before answering these bigger questions, we must answer the smaller questions of how did we get here and who is in line to lead the Conservative Party and maybe even become the next Prime Minister?
The Conservative’s Context: Following the Conservative’s defeat in the last year’s general election, there were a number of questions around Andrew Scheer’s leadership and if he would remain as Party Leader. In November, with the support of the Conservative caucus, Scheer confirmed his intent to remain and prepare for his next duel with Justin Trudeau whenever that might be. Less than a month later, amidst revelations that he was using party funds to cover personal expenses, Scheer announced his resignation as Leader.
As Scheer departed, the Conservatives began to launch their leadership race. Names of potential replacements were being tossed around like a beach ball at spring break. It was hard to keep up with all the names being floated around.
- Fundraise and pay a $200,000 non-refundable registration fee (in installments);
- Pay a $100,000 compliance deposit for good conduct; and,
- Obtain 3,000 signatures of support from party members in at least 30 different ridings across at least seven provinces or territories.
Unlike other parties, the Conservatives use a rank ballot, which given the Conservative’s opposition to rank balloting for general elections is a tad ironic. Nonetheless, the Party’s constitution states that a person who is in good standings with the Party and has a membership is entitled to vote during a leadership race. Votes are calculated so that each electoral district is given equal weight and a total of 100 points. Candidates are assigned a point total based on their percentage of the vote in each electoral district. To win, a candidate must receive at least 16,901 points, which would be a majority.
Since his “I’m in” tweet, Peter MacKay has been the heavy favourite among pundits and the general public. As the campaign rolled along, Erin O’Toole quickly picked up speed and was seen as a real contender. Earlier this week, Hamish Marshall, the Conservatives Campaign Manager in 2019 and the strategist behind Andrew Scheer’s leadership victory, predicted an O’Toole victory. Given MacKay’s experience in leadership races, winning the 2003 Progressive Conservative Leadership Race, and his overwhelming support from the current Conservative Caucus, this could come down to the wire.
No matter the results on Sunday, the real winner is Leslyn Lewis. As a relatively unknown figure at the start of the campaign, Lewis and her team have taken the leadership race by storm. Starting the campaign as the “social conservative” candidate, she was quickly able to rise to the spotlight for being reasonable and intelligent, which was a sharp contrast to her social conservative competitor Derek Sloan.
Within the party, many veterans believe that she will play the role of kingmaker in deciding who will be the next leader. Some have said that she could be the runner-up, which would be an upset to either Peter MacKay or the Erin O’Toole. Despite the outcome, Lewis has made a solid name for herself and will be at the top of the list for a senior cabinet role the next time the Tories are in power.
Beyond her interesting story, Lewis is a well educated, woman from Toronto, a key demographic the Tories need to win over if they would like to return to power. In the last elections, the Conservatives were practically shut-out of the GTA and saw the loss of a prominent MP and Deputy Leader in Lisa Raitt.
Many believed that social issues, like Andrew Scheer’s position on same-sex marriage and abortion, harmed the Conservative’s ability to win over voters, especially those in urban areas. But when one takes a closer look, it appears that it might be a larger issue than that relates to the tories branding and public perception. Following the election, Abacus Data explored how Canadians viewed the Tories.
The poll found that Canadians see the Conservatives as close to oil and religion and rarely associate them with diversity, equality, or climate change. People describe the party as old and traditional with a closed-mind and cautious attitude. Not quite the look you want when trying to appeal to voters, many of which are millennials and like new and innovative ideas.
If the Conservatives want to be taken seriously as an alternative to the Liberals and the government in waiting, then they will need to engage in some long and often hard conversation. This includes proving a clear position on a number of big issues ranging from social issues to the environment. In the last election, the Conservatives present a plan for the environment that saw the carbon tax scraped, a plan that brings great joy to many Conservatives but few others, and replaced it with a handful of tax credits to spur innovation and growth.
These types of conversations may even ruffle a few feathers in caucus, which given the tension from the leadership race, might already be divided. Many Conservatives are not eager to repeat 2017, where a bitter leadership race resulted in the runner-up leaving the Tories to form their own party.
Adding to the challenge is the newly founded Wexit Party. Which started as a bit of a pipe-dream that would see Western Canada separate, has gained some momentum as they now have official party status from Elections Canada and they will be able to run candidates in the next election. A recent poll found that 16% of Conservative supporters are in favour of western separation. Given the parties, long-standing roots in the West and strong financial support, this could become a genuine threat for the incoming leader.
Earlier this week it was announced that over 150,000 members have cast their ballots. This surpasses the number of votes in the 2017 Leadership Race and the number of voters that voted for Justin Trudeau in the 2013 Liberal Leadership. It is clear that the Conservative base is eager to start a new chapter and hopefully elect a new leader that is capable of defeating Liberals in the next election.
The Bottom Line: Although the Conservative membership is engaged in the leadership race, with over 150,000 ballots casted many others aren’t. The Party leader, whoever that may be, will have their hands full with a number of challenges including major policy changes to attract more Canadians, uniting the current caucus and re-energizing a fading brand. While it may seem like an uphill battle, there are a number of opportunities to reposition the party and take on a government that can only be described as stalling. No matter what happens, let’s hope that we don’t have to do this again for a very long time.