05/15/2020 09:33 EDT | Updated 05/15/2020 11:28 EDT

Conservative Leadership Race Candidates In Insular Fight For A Narrow Base (Analysis)

The contest, disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, has been short on new ideas.

Conservative leadership hopefuls Erin O'Toole and Peter MacKay are shown in a composite of photos from The Canadian Press.

The Conservative party just missed a golden opportunity to broaden its tent. 

Today marks the last day leadership candidates can sell party memberships. These members will select the next leader of the party — sometime late this summer.

Why cut off membership on May 15 when the ballots won’t be counted until Aug. 21?

Good question.

Watch: Here’s who is still running for the Tory leadership


Why nix potential challengers — Rick Peterson, Rudy Husny and Marilyn Gladu who asked in March that deadlines be extended because of the COVID-19 pandemic — only to announce less than 48 hours later that the entire race would be suspended? Another good question, and one not answered by the party’s leadership election organizing committee (LEOC). 

As the party closes the books on who will be allowed to choose the next leader — either former cabinet ministers Peter MacKay or Erin O’Toole, Ontario MP Derek Sloan, or Toronto lawyer Leslyn Lewis — it’s worth noting the Conservatives have held zero debates. Not one chance for these candidates to go head to head and try not just to win over existing members but to court new ones to join the party. 

Instead, the Conservatives have held a very insular race. One driven by messages to party members and former party members (guns, good; Justin Trudeau, bad) and, arguably to a lesser extent, to the candidates’ and their endorsers’ networks and to potential voters identified through social media.

Who has heard about this contest but for unflattering headlines of nearly all of the contestants? (Sloan’s attacks against Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam, MacKay’s flip-flop over transgender rights, and O’Toole’s referring of Indigenous protests as “domestic terrorism”.)

Justin Tang/CP
Conservative MP Derek Sloan attends a Conservative caucus retreat on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, on Jan. 24, 2020.

There has been no policy discussion. The most interesting idea to come out of Conservative leadership circles recently is found in the pages of the Wall Street Journal, written by a fellow named Stephen Harper.

This may be the race some leadership camps wanted (cough cough, here’s looking at you, MacKay), but this isn’t the contest the party needs.

Simply put, the Conservatives need more voters. They have the most solid base but, so far, they have had a hard time winning elections on their own. 

If it weren’t for the Liberals’ historic collapse and the NDP’s “orange wave” in 2011, Prime Minister Harper would not have won a majority government. 

Since the party formed in 2003, the Conservatives have consistently won a solid 30 per cent of the electorate. From lows of 29.6 per cent in 2004 (when Liberal prime minister Paul Martin won a minority), and 31.9 per cent in 2015 (when Prime Minister Trudeau won his majority), to highs  of 36.3 per cent in 2006, which led to Harper’s first minority government, 37.7 per cent in 2008, and 39.6 per cent in 2011. It seems that no matter what else is on offer by the other parties, slightly less than a third of Canadians are squarely behind the Tories. 

Just this latest election, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer won 34.3 per cent of votes cast — more than Trudeau’s 33.1 per cent — because, unfortunately for the Tories, their votes are overwhelmingly concentrated in two provinces: Alberta and Saskatchewan.  

Polls and electoral results show many Canadians are open to voting for a centre-right party — Brian Mulroney’s crushing big-tent majorities make that point. 

With three federal centre-left parties cannibalizing each other, the Conservatives should have an easier time winning elections. 

But instead of a contest where different ideas are explored — how to reach out to the suburbs, to urban Canadians, young people, and women on issues such as climate change, health care delivery, and taxation — the party designed a race to appeal to its narrow base. And it’s turning into one that is pushing the presumed front-runners — MacKay and O’Toole — further away from the electorate. 

Once again, the new Tory leader risks being handcuffed by the need to play to the party’s anti-abortion, anti-same-sex-marriage crowd to win the crown, only to struggle desperately to get out of that shadow come the general election — a vulnerability the Liberals are all too eager to exploit.

The binding on the Grits’ playbook must be so bent, it’s a wonder the thing still holds together. 

But it holds together because it rings true. Especially, when you see a candidate like O’Toole transparently court the socially conservative supporters of Sloan and Lewis for a second choice ranking. (Something that MacKay, who is pro-choice, can also be accused of doing last week with his “bathroom bill” comment.) 

Justin Tang/CP
Conservative leadership candidate Peter MacKay speaks to supporters at a meet and greet event in Ottawa on Jan. 26, 2020.

Because the Tories use a preferential ballot, unless MacKay or O’Toole wins on the first round, the second choice picks of the other candidates could determine the next leader, just as it did in 2017 when most of the social conservatives who supported MP Brad Trost moved over to Scheer and helped ensure his win over Maxime Bernier, a libertarian deemed too socially progressive.

To be fair to the party, there were a lot of factors playing into the organizing committee’s decision to have a short contest. The caucus was antsy. Many MPs wanted to dump Scheer and have a new leader quickly. Some argued that there being a  minority government required the party to be election ready, something it could not be with a lame duck leader. 

MacKay argued for a quick race. His strategy was based on name recognition, no chance for opponents to out-organize him, and an appeal to members that he is best placed to win a federal contest. 

For what it’s worth, MacKay’s team argues the race has been broad enough and that they have sold more memberships than any other leadership contender  in the party’s history — pointing to former “Dragons’ Den” star Kevin O’Leary, who, they said, sold 27,000 last time. They plan to share those numbers late Friday or Saturday. 

O’Toole’s camp won’t say if they’ll share their membership sales but also said they believe the different leadership campaigns have had enough time to recruit more members.

Andrew Vaughan/CP
Erin O'Toole speaks at the annual general meeting of the Nova Scotia Progressive Conservative party in Halifax on Feb. 8, 2020.

“I’d say the tent is quite large, which is bad for Peter [MacKay], given he’s alienated such a big part of it,” was one flavourful comment.

Another factor likely playing into LEOC’s decision-making was a desire to avoid a crowded stage. In 2017, there were 13 candidates (14 with O’Leary, who dropped out but remained on the final ballot) competing for airtime over the course of more than six months. Limiting the field might mean fewer undesirable contestants; limiting the timeline might also mean less of a national spotlight on controversial and unpopular ideas with the general public, such as Kellie Leitch’s values test.

The committee vetoed two candidates: former staffer Richard Decarie and Ontario organizer Jim Karahalios, who is suing the party over the decision. (The case is expected in court Friday.)

Its rules also snuffed out former Quebec premier and federal PC leader Jean Charest, who told Radio-Canada that the party had changed a lot since he left it in 1998. Because of his views on the environment and on social issues, Charest said he would have needed more time to recruit new members — something the timelines didn’t allow.

Wedge politics dominating contest

After the Conservatives’ defeat in October, many observers noted that the party needed a more moderate message on social issues. Nothing in the candidates’ email blasts suggest they think that’s the way to win this race. It’s mostly guns, China, Trudeau — wedge politics much like the parties’ fundraising appeals. 

The Conservatives had roughly 150,000 members in January, or 180,000 when lapsed memberships were renewed, according to party spokesman Cory Hann. In 2017, during that race, 259,000 members were eligible to vote in the contest, though only 141,000 cast a ballot. Those numbers are similar to the Liberals’ 2013 leadership campaign, where 294,000 signed up — members and unpaid supporters — but only about 105,000 voted. 

Leadership contests don’t happen every day. This is the Conservatives’ third. The NDP has also had three since 2003 (and probably would have one or two fewer without Jack Layton’s unfortunate passing). The Liberals, with all their leadership troubles, have had four since the turn of the century. These are unique opportunities to shape and reshape political parties. What does this leader stand for? What is their vision?

To borrow a phrase, it seems Conservatives are at risk of wasting another breakaway on an open net.