OTTAWA—Lisa Raitt has gone shark fishing! As someone who grew up in the era of the epic Jaws films, she knows it can be a pretty bloody endeavour to catch the big fish, but well worth the glory if you do.
Last week, Raitt, who to date has had generally a quite uneventful Conservative leadership campaign, decided to go after Kevin O’Leary and to a lesser degree Kellie Leitch. Raitt had a news conference at the national press theatre in Ottawa during what is normally a sleepy post-Christmas/early new year time to announce the launch of the website StopKevinOLeary.com.
She said she was taking a stand against the “cheap talk” and “irresponsible populism” of would-be candidate O’Leary and current contender Leitch. She sees O’Leary and to a lesser degree Leitch as dangerous proponents of passing fads of pissed-off populism that over time could sink the Conservative Party.
Raitt clearly believes O’Leary is going to enter the race. She also sees a potential benefit in setting herself up as his main opponent. While other candidates like Andrew Scheer, Erin O’Toole, Michael Chong, and Maxime Bernier have criticized or challenged O’Leary on different matters, none have gone so far as Raitt to call for his defeat or perhaps scare him away from entering.
Raitt is no dummy. She knows by trying to harpoon O’Leary she can also inflate his candidacy and reinforce his disruptor image, which many Conservative voters might find appealing. But she also is conscious of the fact if she doesn’t take some risks she has zero chance of winning the Conservative race.
Given that 13 candidates still remain in the race (another fail for us pundits who thought more than one would drop out by Dec. 31), now is the time if you are still competing to do a serious review of what constitutes your winning conditions. While many of the 13 are still lining themselves up to be everyone’s second choice, Raitt seems to have stepped away from that configuration.
If Raitt can keep driving the narrative that O’Leary is a threat and she is best placed to deal with him then she might have a path to victory. But it is a big “if.”
Raitt knows her life story makes a good contrast to O’Leary’s. There aren’t, to the best of my knowledge, videos of Lisa Raitt referring to herself as Ms. Wonderful while opening a champagne bottle with a sabre. Raitt’s life with its ups and downs is more relatable to Canadians than O’Leary’s. Like O’Leary, she is a good communicator who is affable. She is also not a carbon copy of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, which matters. And ironically, like O’Leary, her French is a work in progress. If they were to engage in verbal fisticuffs both would likely downplay that commonality.
To land a shark, though, you have to get him to take the bait; so far, O’Leary hasn’t bitten. He and his team have made general comments in response to Raitt’s pronouncements, but they have not focused on sinking Raitt. They rightly commented that the one thing Lisa Raitt’s news conference has done is generate some energy into what has mostly been a lacklustre affair.
We are still nearly five months away from the Conservatives selecting a new leader. More blood is likely to be left on the floor as candidates try to assert themselves in the run-up to the May 27 vote. The pack of candidates trying to be everyone’s second choice is going to have to fragment a bit, as you can’t have 12 or 13 number 2s. Voters can only pick one. Campaign strategists will have their work cut out for them trying to differentiate themselves from their opponents and to do that in a well-timed manner that coincides with members’ voting periods.
There is also a psychological challenge both for the candidate and elector in the number 2 positioning strategy. If you are everybody’s consensus second choice, how then can you beat the Liberals’ and the NDP’s first-choice person? The mind games never end.
Tim Powers is vice-chairman of Summa Strategies and managing director of Abacus Data. He is a former adviser to Conservative political leaders.
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