National Column: Funds key to clinching Tory leadership

by Chantal Hébert

It is a political rule of thumb that defeated incumbents tend to drown their sorrows in money and it turns out the federal Conservatives are no exception.

At $5 million, the spending limit imposed on each of the candidates who will vie to replace Stephen Harper between now and next spring is more than five times higher than the maximum allowed for the leadership contest that resulted in Justin Trudeau’s election.

But it is in the same general ballpark as that set by the Liberals immediately after they lost power to the Conservatives in 2006.

Over the campaign that ended with StÈphane Dion’s victory, the candidates were allowed to spend almost $3.5 million each – down from $4 million at the time of Paul Martin’s quasi-coronation in 2003.

In between the two Liberal leadership contests, more restrictive Elections Canada fundraising rules hadcome into effect. Corporations were no longer permitted to dish out generous helpings of money to
their favourite candidate. Only individuals could contribute a modest amount of money.

In 2006, the Liberals were the first to try out those new rules and the result was a collective disaster.

By the time the campaign ended, more than half the 11 candidates were mired in debt. Over the years that followed their efforts to pay off those debts put a crimp in the party’s fundraising efforts. (Unlike the Conservatives today, the Liberals could at least count on a public per-vote subsidy for most of that period.)

To top it all, the 2006 Liberal campaign did not yield a winning leader.

The Conservatives apparently believe they are immune to those risks.

Not that they have any experience with the process – Harper was selected under the old free-for-all system.

Under the lax rules of the recent past, a leadership candidate with deep pockets such as Belinda Stronach was able to make up for her political outsider status by financing her own campaign.

But in this contest, businessman Kevin O’Leary would be forbidden to tap into his own considerable financial resources. Instead he would have to find supporters to finance his campaign, $1,500 at a time.

The immediate impact of the high spending limit the party has settled on will likely be to give an added incentive to the other prospective candidates to wait for a clear signal from Jason Kenney and Peter MacKay as to their leadership intentions.

If both former ministers run, they will suck a lot of money out of the donation pool, and be well positioned to compound their front-running positions by outspending the competition.

In this contest, the ability to finance a truly national campaign will be crucial.

It will not be good enough to sign up a lot of members in a given region. Each riding – whether its membership is in the thousands or less than 50-strong – will be worth 100 points to be split among the candidates based on the percentage of their support.

In theory, a candidate could come first in the 99 ridings the party currently holds but still lose by not doing well in the 239 that are not currently represented by a Conservative MP in the House of Commons.

And if you think that is an extreme scenario, consider that, on balance, Kenney is best placed to score high in many of the Conservative-held ridings but MacKay could be an easier sell in most of the non conservative ones.

There are of course more ways to gain from a leadership campaign than by becoming leader.

Brian Mulroney, John Turner, Jean Chretien and Paul Martin all built subsequent leadership victories on an initial failed bid.

In a polarized contest between two front-runners, it can also be a winning strategy to start off from behind with the goal of becoming everyone’s second choice.

When Dion entered the 2006 campaign, he was considered a placeholder whose sole mission was to represent Quebec in the lineup dominated by Michael Ignatieff and Bob Rae.

But for seasoned politicians, the leadership game is worth playing only if one has a reasonable chance of finishing with a score high enough to not lose face. And achieving that in the expensive Conservative environment will be costly.

Copyright 2016 – Torstar Syndication Services

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