OTTAWA — When Erin O’Toole was named the next leader of the federal Conservative party early Monday, his caucus colleague Cathay Wagantall watched the live televised results from the headquarters of a rival campaign.
Wagantall endorsed Leslyn Lewis, a newcomer to the federal political scene and one of two social conservatives in the eight-month leadership race.
“If we had a little more time, I think the result could have been very different,” Wagantall told HuffPost Canada.
Seven Conservative MPs supported Lewis for leader. The race to replace former leader Andrew Scheer garnered a record-setting 174,849 ballots from paid members.
Through a recruitment campaign, the cohort of social conservatives within the party has also found strength in increased numbers.
According to the Campaign Life Coalition, the anti-abortion advocacy group recruited more than 26,000 party members to support social conservative candidates Lewis and Ontario MP Derek Sloan. “More than twice” the number of members they recruited during the 2017 leadership race, said spokesperson Jack Fonseca in a news release.
Support for social conservative candidates on the first ballot grew to 35 per cent in this year’s contest compared to 16 per cent three years ago, the group said, calling the bloc a “major and irreplaceable” part of the Conservative base.
Watch: O’Toole says he’s bringing a fighting spirit to the Tory leadership. Story continues below video.
Wagantall, who represents the Saskatchewan riding of Yorkton–Melville, said she was drawn to Lewis because she saw “an ability to unite Canadians” in her. The ballots reflect a strong campaign from the previously unknown leadership candidate.
Lewis ran a socially conservative platform by advocating for freedoms of expression, conscience, and religion that outperformed both O’Toole and Peter MacKay in the West on the second ballot. She pledged to reopen the abortion debate to ban sex-selective abortions and to cut international programs that fund the procedure.
The Toronto lawyer, who is the first racialized woman to vie for the party’s leadership position, won more points in British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba than her seasoned political rivals. She captured 30 per cent of votes on the second ballot before being eliminated for the last round.
Though her pick for leader lost, Wagantall said it will be important for the party to continue to reach out to social conservatives to bring more people under its tent.
“We value the things that all Canadians value, you know, freedom of religion, freedom of speech, we value human rights and equality, and these are all issues that I believe Canadians are concerned about right now,” she said.
Lewis announced Tuesday that she intends to run as a Conservative candidate in the next election.
O’Toole says he won leadership as ‘pro-choice Conservative MP’
In his first press conference as Conservative leader, O’Toole avoided speaking at length on abortion when asked about his vote in favour of 2016 legislation tabled by Wagantall to protect unborn victims of crime. The new leader called it a public safety bill.
“I won the leadership of the Conservative party as a pro-choice Conservative MP. One that won with a strong mandate,” O’Toole said. “That’s how I’m going to lead as the leader of the Opposition. And that’s how I’ll be as prime minister.”
Saskatchewan MP Jeremy Patzer endorsed Lewis for leader and was also camped out at her campaign headquarters in Ottawa Sunday — an environment he described as positive. “It was a good energy, it was a good vibe that we had all night.”
Though his candidate didn’t win, Patzer suggested he’s comforted by O’Toole’s pledge that “there are no albatrosses in my Conservative party” — a thinly-veiled swipe at MacKay’s infamous criticism of Scheer’s election performance and how social issues hung around his neck on the campaign trail.
Patzer suggested while social conservatives are “definitely a strong part of the party,” continued focus on this faction misses higher priority concerns at the moment.
“I think the biggest thing that Canadians are looking at right now, and especially social conservatives, is we’re looking at how we’re going to proceed coming out of COVID-19,” the Cypress Hills–Grasslands MP said.
The party attracts social conservatives because of a lack of political alternatives, Patzer said.
Social conservatives feel like this is the party where they can talk about the ideas and the things that matter to them and not be told that they have to park their values at the door.Saskatchewan MP Jeremy Patzer
“When you look at all the other federal parties, they don’t allow you to even have social conservative values per se, or have those social values like that,” he explained.
“Social conservatives feel like this is the party where they can talk about the ideas and the things that matter to them and not be told that they have to park their values at the door.”
Conservative MP Tamara Jansen also backed Lewis for leader.
While O’Toole is focused on building out the Conservative tent, the prominent social conservative said her focus is on “the fundamental importance of family as the foundation of Canadian society.”
Jansen praised O’Toole for being a “committed defender of democratic rights of MPs to vote their conscience” and told HuffPost she’s looking forward to “lots of good discussions” in the future.
Fundraising surge for Lewis allowed campaign to pay for courier costs
Future discussions on social conservative issues could also pave the way to donations. Party members were seemingly excited about what Lewis had on offer, contributing more than $2 million in donations to her campaign.
“We did end up getting up over 80 per cent of our identified support in the box, so we’re very pleased with how that went,” Lewis’ campaign manager, Steve Outhouse, said in an interview Sunday between ballot-counting delays.
The campaign specifically noticed an uptick in donations after Lewis’ remarks on the killing of George Floyd, Outhouse said, and after they released a statement reaffirming her support of police officers and position against defunding departments.
They focused on areas where there were still “more ballots to be grabbed.” As restrictions eased to allow physically distant in-person events, they organized a tour to get Lewis in front of party members in Alberta, Saskatchewan, southern Ontario and the Greater Toronto Area.
It was in the final week of the campaign when their donations hit the $2-million mark, which made a difference in getting their supporters’ ballots to Ottawa before a Friday deadline in order to be counted.
The surge in money in those last days allowed Lewis’ campaign to offer to pay the mail courier costs for any supporter who still had mail-in ballots at home.
To collect ballots from supporters to mail to leadership campaign headquarters for counting, Lewis’ campaign team established drop-off points for people to give their sealed envelopes. One of the ballot drop-off points was Outhouse’s house.
“My poor family was going crazy, because there would be like — sometimes we were getting 60 deliveries a day,” he said. “The doorbell kept going. Didn’t make me very popular at home, but that’s what happened.”