by Chantal Hebert
With Kevin O’Leary on stage, the Conservatives had their first chance to watch the full slate of leadership hopefuls in action Saturday night. Here is a look at the state of play as the yearlong campaign to find a successor for Stephen Harper moves into high gear.
Maxime Bernier has collected more money than any of his rivals and the largest number of contributions. There are fewer Conservative members in Quebec than in the other large provinces. Given that, his tally suggests he has a broader base. In the big picture, that matters. With every riding worth the same number of leadership votes regardless of the size of its membership, it is not good enough to have the most boots on the ground if those are concentrated in a single region.
Bernier had a fundraising head start on most of the competition. But he collected more than half of his 2016 funds over the last three months of the year, at a time when all but O’Leary had joined the race. The party’s first bilingual debate took place during that period. By all indications, Bernier scored points for being able to debate in both French and English, a skill most of his rivals do not command.
Kellie Leitch lost her chief strategist last week. Nick Kouvalis quit his post of campaign manager just as her main plank – a controversial plan to test newcomers to this country for so-called anti-Canadian values – was under attack from all quarters of the Conservative movement.
Since the imposition by Donald Trump’s U.S. administration of a travel ban on citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries, a string of leading Conservatives ranging from former federal ministers Jason Kenney and Peter MacKay to Saskatchewan premier Brad Wall and Nova Scotia Tory leader Jamie Baillie have cautioned the Conservatives against backing Leitch and/or embracing Trump-style immigration policies.
In the last quarter of 2016, Leitch fell from first to second place on the fundraising scoreboard. Campaigns are run on momentum. The returns for the first quarter of this year will tell whether she has any left.
To the surprise of some, Ontario MP Michael Chong finished in the 2016 fundraising top tier. As the lone proponent of a carbon tax, he has been swimming against the tide on the debate podium. But there is a sizable constituency within the Conservative party that does want it to be more proactive on climate change and carbon pricing, and he has cornered that market. An early campaign start also helped. Chong’s problem may be that he has relatively little room to grow past the first round of voting.
Despite coming to the battle later than the previous three, Saskatchewan MP Andrew Scheer raised more money than Chong and almost caught up to Leitch in the last quarter. The former speaker of the House of Commons scored points this month when former Conservative minister Chuck Strahl joined his campaign. Strahl is respected across the Reform/Tory divide. Scheer has a strong regional base in the Prairies, but the region has a relatively modest number of leadership votes. Strahl is well placed to open up doors in British Columbia.
Of the nine other candidates who entered the race before the end of last year, Ontario MP Erin O’Toole – who served in Harper’s cabinet over the final months of the Conservative mandate – has done best on both caucus endorsements and fundraising.
If victory in May ends up belonging to whoever is the second choice of the largest number of Conservatives, he could be this campaign’s dark horse.
A word in closing on O’Leary – the late-entry candidate presumed to be the front-runner even before he has run a single lap.
He is not the first to try to parlay a business background into a federal leadership ticket. But candidates such as Michael Wilson, Brian Mulroney or Paul Martin all seemed to have a deeper understanding of the federation and the party they sought to lead than O’Leary has exhibited to date.
If the Conservatives were really looking for a seatless political rookie with solid business credentials and a capacity to articulate policy in either official language to lead them, they would pick Rick Peterson – the B.C. outsider who is scoring at or close to the bottom of the fundraising and polling charts – over O’Leary.
But then Peterson is anything but a reality television personality!
Chantal Hebert is a national affairs writer. Her column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.
Copyright 2017-Torstar Syndication Services