TORONTO — Kevin O’Leary’s decision to withdraw from the Conservative leadership race creates a huge opportunity for his former rivals, those still in the contest said Wednesday, as they squared off in the party’s final debate and took particular aim at Maxime Bernier, now the perceived front-runner.
"Today, the race just got real," candidate Erin O'Toole declared on stage. "Elvis has left the building."
Less than two hours before the Toronto event was to start, the businessman and and television personality, accompanied by Bernier, held a news conference at the Fairmont Royal York to explain his decision to pull out of the contest and throw his support behind the Quebec MP.
“It would seem foolish, even selfish, to win the leadership knowing that I didn’t have a clear path or high probability [of winning a majority government],” O’Leary said. He called Bernier the “candidate that best mirrors my policies.”
Over the weekend, O’Leary adviser Mike Coates and Bernier adviser Kory Teneycke had a number of conversations. Their candidates spoke on the phone Monday, and on Tuesday, O’Leary flew from New York to Toronto for an 11 p.m. rendezvous with Bernier.
Bernier’s camp said the meeting was held at a private residence. O’Leary’s camp said the two met at the Royal York. Regardless, the two huddled until 1 a.m. when they notified the rest of their teams that they had come to an agreement on the messaging of the impending announcement.
O’Leary informed the Conservative party mid-afternoon Wednesday, after the news had already broken online.
Coates told HuffPost Canada that O’Leary’s internal polling numbers showed he had the support of only 12 per cent in Quebec. O’Leary was convinced he could win the Tory leadership but he had started to worry that he couldn’t win a general election.
Despite having a French tutor who travelled with him, O’Leary, a unilingual anglophone, had not yet grasped the language. Wednesday’s debate was held in both official languages. But perhaps, Coates suggested, O’Leary’s biggest learning curve was the political arena. “You don’t really know what’s it’s going to be like,” he said. “Now, he knows.”
Despite both candidates’ launching aggressive attacks against each other — each suggested the other was guilty of voter fraud by improperly paying for memberships — the two were all smiles Wednesday, saying their dispute had been “amicable.”
O’Leary wanted to be a “disrupter” in the campaign and viewed Bernier the only candidate who would could also embody that role, Coates said.
Two blocks from the Royal York, at the St. Lawrence Centre for the Performing Arts, where Conservatives gathered for the debate, news of O’Leary’s withdrawal was all the buzz.
London, Ont., resident Shelley Clair sat facing Bernier’s promotional booth. An O’Leary supporter, she told HuffPost Canada she was disappointed he’d dropped out but now she was interested in learning more about Bernier because of the endorsement.
Warrington Ellacott, a new party member from Orangeville, Ont., thought O’Leary’s exit presented an opportunity for the other candidates. He hoped to see O’Leary’s pro-business message adopted by other candidates.
Both Andrew Saxton, a former North Vancouver MP and banker, and Vancouver venture capitalist Rick Peterson tried to assume O’Leary’s business-focus mantle by trumpeting their private sector experience. Even O’Toole, a former veterans minister, said he could also go after members who were looking for an outsider with business experience.
“If they liked his private-sector, sort of hard-edged business guy, I worked on Bay Street in these towers here. I haven’t been in politics for a decade-plus like some in this race,” he said.
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O’Leary’s exit provides a new opportunity to court the 35,000 members his camp signed up. But a number of the Tories’ 259,000 members also registered through the party’s website and the opposing campaigns don’t know where their loyalties lie or where their second, third and fourth ballot support will land.
The Conservatives are electing their new leader through a weighted-ranked ballot system that gives every riding the same influence regardless of how many members it has. Ballots started arriving in the mail this week. A new leader will be selected on May 27.
All the remaining candidates said on Wednesday that they had no plans to leave the contest.
“We don’t know who is going to win. It’s a wide open race,” Saxton said. “Obviously, with Kevin gone, it stirs things up.”
“His people are up for grabs,” O’Toole noted. He said he is actively courting O’Leary supporters, hoping to land former Ontario Progressive Conservative premier Mike Harris’ endorsement.
“This is fabulous for myself,” Kellie Leitch declared after the debate. She said she was the only Conservative alternative to O’Leary. “He and Maxime Bernier share some ideas, whether that be legalized marijuana or otherwise.”
While the final debate included the usual flashpoints over Leitch’s call for screening immigrants and challenger Michael Chong’s desire to adopt a carbon tax, Wednesday’s face-off included several barbs directed at Bernier.
Former Commons speaker Andrew Scheer told the audience that the race was now between him and Bernier and that attention needed to be given to the MP’s more radical position.
“Conservatives win when we take the very best of what we agree on, that we take the policies that we know enjoy the most support in mainstream Canada and we run on those types of things, and I’m worried that, with Maxime, it’s more a personal ideology that he is advocating that doesn’t enjoy broad-base support in the general public,” he later told reporters.
“...I don’t want to spend any more time in opposition than I have to,” Scheer said.
Bernier’s position on ending supply management, for example, would mean billions of dollars spent buying back farmers’ quotas — an expense that would be imposed on Canadians either as a consumption tax on milk, dairy and poultry products, or as a cost added to the national debt, Scheer said.
“So there is no immediate benefit to consumers and we have just sold out a huge section of our Conservative movement and rural Canada.”
Bernier’s support for free trade with China is also concerning, Scheer said, noting a particular impact on the Canadian manufacturing sector.
“There are some policies that he has advocated for that a lot of members, I don’t know if they have been informed about the full breadth of the impact.”
In a note to party members, Scheer referred to a Mainstreet Research poll that suggested he had 16.7 per cent of support, behind O’Leary’s 26.3 per cent. Bernier was third with 14.2 per cent and O’Toole followed with 7.8 per cent.
Contenders court O’Leary supporters
“To Kevin O’Leary’s supporters across the country, who are no doubt confused and disappointed, you are welcome in my campaign. I’m a genuine conservative who will bring a new optimistic tone to our party to defeat Trudeau,” Scheer wrote.
Chong countered that, according to a Nanos survey, he was the most appealing leader to Canadian voters with O’Leary now out of the contest, and the only one who can win in 2019.
“Kevin O’Leary made the right decision by dropping out of the leadership race,” Chong said. O’Leary couldn’t speak French and couldn’t win in Quebec, he said.
“Conservative party members also need to take a hard look at some the extreme policies that are being proposed by some of the other candidates.
“We have a candidate that is proposing to eliminate for the first time in 40 years the federal government’s role in the delivery of public health care — Canadians’ most cherished social program — and the most important priority for Canadians,” Chong said, referring to Bernier.
Bernier’s ‘extreme’ policies in spotlight
Some of Bernier’s other “extreme” policies include proposing to pay for income taxes by cutting more than one-third of all federal program spending, Chong said. The deepest cuts, levied in the 1990s by former Liberal finance minister Paul Martin in an effort to bring Canada’s finances in order, slashed program spending by only 10 per cent, Chong noted. Bernier’s cuts would be three to four times higher, he said. “It would wreck our social and health care services.”
On stage, Chong said Bernier could not win, arguing that such policies would hand the next election to the Liberal Party of Canada.
The Quebec candidate seemed content to sit back and let the 12 others on the stage compete for airtime. When challenged, Bernier spoke of his desire to champion ideas of freedom, small government and personal responsibility. He defended his healthcare plan by saying reforms are needed since Canada has the worst wait times in the OECD countries.
He also noted that it was “a little bit bizarre” that Tory candidates were all jumping to defend supply management, a system that was brought in by former Liberal prime minister Pierre Eliott Trudeau.
In an email to members, Bernier said he had the best team, had raised the most money and sold the most memberships. He boasted that he could win in 40 seats in Quebec and claimed the broadest support across Canada.
Bernier wasn’t the only Conservative smiling ear to ear Wednesday.
Several party members breathed sighs of relief with O’Leary out of the race.
“I’m just pleased because I know Mr. O’Leary was very much against pro-life issues. So, for myself, I’m happy about it. That’s all I can say,” Denis Gracias, a Roman Catholic visual artist, told HuffPost.
Toronto resident Elizabeth Carswell, a Chris Alexander supporter, had only two words to mark O’Leary’s parting: “Thank you.”
With files from Zi-Ann Lum