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Digital campaigns say they’ve convinced thousands to try to swing Conservative leadership contest to the centre

Five engineers and two Toronto men say they have helped to sign up thousands of new members to oppose Leitch, O'Leary, and others.

Candidates in the Conservative leadership race aren't the only ones organizing to sway members of the party before the May 27 vote. Several digital campaigns say they have attracted non-traditional conservatives to take out memberships and, they hope, help to elect a party leader close to the political centre. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright

PUBLISHED :Wednesday, April 19, 2017 12:00 AM

A network of amateur, online political campaigns is preparing to release a mock ballot for the Conservative leadership race to thousands of supporters in the party, in an effort to swing the contest away from candidates Kellie Leitch, Kevin O’Leary, and social conservatives in the race.

Organizers behind the digital campaigns, involving websites, social media accounts, and small-scale advertising, say they convinced between 5,000 and 10,000 centrist or left-leaning Canadians to join the Conservative Party before the March 28 cut-off to sign up new members to vote in the upcoming leadership race. The organizers say they are in regular contact with each other as they try to determine how to rank the different candidates on their suggested ballot, due to be released in mid-May.

However, pollsters tracking the leadership race are skeptical those groups will be able to swing it significantly, unless several factors align in their favour.

 

  

Spreading message ‘across Canada’

“What we hope to achieve is basically to protect one of our major political parties from being taken over by…what we consider alt-right fringe groups, or reality TV stars that don’t live in or care about the country,” said Benjamin Kolaczek, one of five organizers behind one of the groups, called Tolerable Opposition.

“We want to promote a tolerable leader with the potential to win a general election, and basically immediately provide a strong opposition to the current government.”

Tolerable Opposition is a digital campaign that has used a website and social media accounts to round up what Mr. Kolaczek estimates is 5,000 new Conservative Party members. That figure is an estimate, he said, made by tracking how many people clicked a link on the group’s website to the Conservative Party sign-up page, then reducing that number of clicks down to the proportion of supporters the organizers believe are likely to have actually signed up, based on an informal poll of members of the website, said Mr. Kolaczek.

The group encourages followers to oppose the candidacies of Conservative MP Kellie Leitch (Simcoe-Grey, Ont.), reality TV star and businessman Kevin O’Leary, and several other candidates for a variety of reasons, including what the organizers say are policies or statements that contradict the Conservative Party constitution, a lack of political leadership experience, or a failure to support equality or individual freedoms.

  

The group has tried to build support in ridings with relatively few Conservative Party members, as a way to maximize its impact in an election where every riding gets an equal vote.

“We’ve really concentrated [on] spreading out our influence across Canada,” said Mr. Kolaczek, who declined to name which ridings his group had targeted.

 

Aligning the vote

The deadline to join the Conservative Party and be able to vote in the leadership election came and went on March 28, and Tolerable Opposition has been working since then with other similar online groups, including A Strong Canada, “trying to align our goals, align our vote, and align our message to our members,” and co-ordinate their votes as effectively as possible, said Mr. Kolaczek.

  

A Strong Canada is based in Toronto, and its organizers believe they have between 1,000 and 1,500 supporters.

Organized by Nicholas Tsergas, 30, a registered nurse, and Aaron Binder, 33, who owns a tour company in Toronto, the group is interviewing several candidates for the Conservative leadership, and plans to post videos of the interviews online this week.

Mr. Binder said he had been a member of the Conservative Party for a few years in his late teens and early 20s, but his membership lapsed until he signed up as a Conservative in order to vote in the upcoming leadership election. Mr. Tsergas said he had a background in leftist political activism, and volunteered for a friend running for the Green Party in 2011, but had since moved towards the political centre, and had never been a card-carrying member of any party up until registering as a Conservative for the upcoming vote.

The organizers plan to release a mock ballot for the leadership race to all of their supporters in the second week of May, suggesting who to vote for and who not to vote for in the leadership race, based on input from Tolerable Opposition and others including the administrators of another website called EndBigotry.ca.

One of the lead organizers behind that site, who asked to remain anonymous because he works in the Ontario public service, has donated on multiple occasions to the national Liberal Party, though he told The Hill Times he is a member of the Conservative Party. The organizer said he believed the EndBigotry.ca campaign had been able to convince about 1,000 or more people to join the Conservative Party, mostly through personal messages spread to “fiscal conservatives” known by about 30 organizers with the group.

Tolerable Opposition has also been communicating with Les Amis de La Gestion de L’offre et des Régions, said Mr. Kolaczek, a Quebec-based Facebook group with more than 8,000 supporters that was created to defend the supply management system for dairy farmers.

Debate over the Conservative leadership race appears throughout the message board of that group, including photos of group members signing up for the Conservative Party, and candidate Steven Blaney (Bellechasse-Les Etchemins-Lévis, Que.) visiting the dairy farm of one of the group’s administrators. There have also been posts denouncing leadership candidate Maxime Bernier (Beauce, Que.), who has promised to eliminate supply management.

The other organizers behind Tolerable Opposition include Emery Finkelstein, Edward Freer, Christine Kim, and Michael Smith. They and Mr. Kolaczek are friends who first met while studying engineering at McMaster University, and are now in their 30s, said Mr. Kolaczek. None have been active in party politics before, and the five are currently spread across Canada and Australia, he said. Mr. Kolaczek told Le Devoir newspaper that he supported the Liberals in the 2015 election and has never voted Conservative. Joining the Conservatives as part of this leadership campaign was his first party membership, the paper reported him saying.

The organizers have received complaints and even death threats through their website, said Mr. Kolaczek, from conservatives who see their efforts as “an attack on the party.”

 

Leitch, O’Leary camps respond

Ari Laskin, a spokesperson for Mr. O’Leary’s campaign, told The Hill Times that ”Anybody who wants to rally against Kevin, or against any of the other candidates, it’s well within their right, but I don’t think it’s something that we’re spending a lot of effort in trying to combat.”

However, he took issue with statements by Tolerable Opposition and similar groups that Mr. O’Leary was akin to a Canadian Donald Trump. Mr. Laskin said Mr. O’Leary’s policy proposals had nothing in common with those of Mr. Trump, and that the comparison was groundless beyond the fact that both men had experience in reality TV before entering politics.

Mr. Laskin also called suggestions that Mr. O’Leary resided in the United States “lies,” and told The Hill Times that Mr. O’Leary lives and pays taxes in Ontario.

Kellie Leitch campaign spokesperson Michael Diamond told The Hill Times that “what these groups are seeking is a Conservative Party that is a carbon copy of the Liberal Party,” and that the Conservative Party needed a clear contrast against the Liberals in order to beat them in the next election. “Kellie offers that contrast.”

When asked to comment on the effort of those digital campaigns to swing the leadership contest, Conservative Party spokesperson Cory Hann noted that the party only grants membership to those over the age of 14, who pay for the membership themselves, are not members of other parties, and support the principles of the party constitution.

“We regularly review memberships as part of our process to ensure rules are being followed, and this leadership race is no different,” he wrote in an emailed statement.

 

CPC ‘takeover’

Last month, A Strong Canada’s Mr. Tsergas told an audience at a Ryerson University event, titled Resisting Trump’s Agenda Against Women, Racialized, and Indigenous Communities, that his campaign’s aim was “a full-scale [takeover] of the Conservative Party by left-wing voters, progressives, people who normally vote liberal or NDP or Green,” the Ryerson EyeOpener reported.

In an interview with The Hill Times, Mr. Tsergas said that rhetoric was merely intended to generate “buzz” and cater to a particularly left-leaning audience.

Nicholas Tsergas, left, and Aaron Binder are the organizers of A Strong Canada. Photographs courtesy of A Strong Canada

“In order to engage them effectively, you can’t come out with a centrist message. It’s just going to bore them to tears,” he said.

A Strong Canada’s goal, according to its website, is to assemble a “centrist-progressive voter bloc” that it can deliver for or against particular candidates that don’t align with those values. The group has singled out Kevin O’Leary and Kellie Leitch as candidates it says should not be supported.

 

Odds stacked against them

The digital campaigns will have difficulty swaying the leadership race, however, unless their supporters are particularly disciplined, and everything breaks right for them, say a pair of pollsters following the Conservative contest.

Party insiders including candidate Michael Chong told the CBC in February they expected that the Conservative Party would have no more than about 150,000 members at the time of the May 27 vote. Mr. Chong later revised that estimate up to 170,000 on CBC’s Power and Politics program in March. His fellow leadership candidate and Conservative MP Erin O’Toole (Durham, Ont.) told the Huffington Post in February he expected the party would have roughly 150,000 members at the time of the vote.

Only 37 per cent of party members voted in the last leadership race in 2004, which catapulted Stephen Harper to the top Conservative post. If a similar proportion of Conservative members cast a ballot on May 27 and the total number of members is around 150,000, the contest will be decided by about 55,500 voters, split unevenly over 338 ridings.

If Tolerable Opposition, A Strong Canada, and their co-operators were to sign up 10,000 Conservative Party members, and they voted at that same rate of 37 per cent, the campaigns could potentially sway 3,700 votes in the contest, a little less than seven per cent.

If the campaigns can get all of their voters to cast the same ballot, and they are concentrated in ridings with relatively few Conservative Party members, they could be influential, said Darrell Bricker, CEO of Ipsos Public Affairs.

If the top of their ballots are split between 10 different candidates, “it doesn’t make a difference at all,” he said.

Some ridings in Canada only have about 20 Conservative Party members, said Mainstreet Research CEO Quito Maggi. Atlantic Canada and Quebec are the most fertile ground for groups looking to influence the leadership race, as ridings in those regions typically have the fewest members, he said.

However, the efforts of pro-centrist campaigns like Tolerable Opposition could effectively be neutralized by campaigns by other outside groups like Campaign Life Coalition, an anti-abortion organization that is backing social conservatives Brad Trost (Saskatoon-University, Sask.) and Pierre Lemieux in the race, said Mr. Maggi.

 

Campaigns divided on some candidates

Tolerable Opposition is working to target vulnerable ridings, according to Mr. Kolaczek, who declined to provide further details.

A Strong Canada is not, however, and believes many of its supporters are in the Toronto area, said Mr. Tsergas.

The groups haven’t yet settled on whom to endorse or how either. Both oppose Ms. Leitch and Mr. O’Leary. Tolerable Opposition opposes Chris Alexander and Rick Peterson in the race, while A Strong Canada hasn’t ruled them out. The founder of Les Amis de La Gestion de L’offre et des Régions has entertained Mr. Blaney, while Tolerable Opposition opposes him as well.

A Strong Canada intends to issue a mock ballot that slots specific candidates into each of the 10 spots on the ballot, while Tolerable Opposition would prefer more flexibility, splitting candidates into three categories: preferred, indifferent, or “leave off the ballot,” said Mr. Kolaczek, who added his group hadn’t made up its mind on the subject of the recommended ballot as of yet.

One thing that’s clear so far is that Michael Chong is a favourite among those who support A Strong Canada. According to Mr. Binder, informal polls in the group show about half of its members favouring the MP for Wellington-Halton Hills, Ont.

A Strong Canada is also planning to get involved in the NDP leadership contest once the Conservative vote is finished, according to the organizers.

peter@hilltimes.com

@PJMazereeuw

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include a more recent estimate of the Conservative Party membership by Michael Chong.