Former prime ministers have helped out party fundraising efforts in the past, but Stephen Harper’s role as a board member for the Conservative Party’s fundraising arm appears unprecedented in modern history, and his signature on appeals to party members is a boon to fundraising, say political insiders.
“It speaks to the knowledge and connection that the Conservative fundraising team has with their base, and the appeal that Stephen Harper has with their base. Why not use the tool to your disposal if it’s going to result in what you’re hoping it will, which is money into the coffers?” said Tim Powers, a vice-chairman at Summa Strategies and past Conservative adviser.
“For the Conservatives, Stephen Harper is still fairly well-loved by the membership, so bringing him in no doubt helps get some money from those people who are quite fond of him,” he said.
The start of a new year typically means a fundraising push by parties. On Jan. 5, the Conservative Party sent out its first fundraising letter of the year to party membership, signed by Mr. Harper and stating that the “practical policies and significant accomplishments we achieved are under siege by the Trudeau Government.”
“I may have stepped down from Parliament last year, but my dedication to strengthening our Conservative Party remains strong and determined. That’s why I am volunteering my time to serve on the board of the Conservative Fund Canada, our party’s fundraising agent,” reads the letter from Mr. Harper. “That means it is my job to ensure we are well prepared to fight the 2019 election.”
It asks members to help the party “start the new year strong with a $50 donation,” and is the first one signed by Mr. Harper since he joined the Conservative Fund last spring.
The fund is comprised of a six-member board, including Mr. Harper and its chairman, former Conservative Senator Irving Gerstein. New Brunswicker Louis Leger is another board member, having joined it in 2012, and chair of its audit committee. British Columbia Conservative Sen. Yonah Martin is also on the board, as are Gordon Reid and Robert Alexander. As board members, part of their role is to help with fundraising.
The call didn’t escape the notice of other parties. On Jan. 12, a note was sent to Liberal supporters—that is, all those who have registered for free as supporters with the party—stating that the party’s work “together is more important than ever” and highlighting that the Conservatives “sent out a national note from their newest fundraising director—Stephen Harper.”
“We know that while he was prime minister, the Conservative Party out-raised the Liberal Party by over $91-million … together we can make sure it doesn’t happen again,” reads the note signed by Braeden Caley, senior director of communications for the Liberal Party.
“The Conservative Party will choose Stephen Harper’s replacement on May 27. Before they do, let’s make sure we’re fully prepared today to support Justin Trudeau’s commitment to real change and positive politics,” it continues.
The Conservative Party’s strong fundraising machine has long been touted as a strategic advantage for the party, but it’s no longer in government and its ongoing leadership race is diverting donations from central coffers, which is only partly offset by candidate registration fees and a small administration fee for candidate donations, which are directed through the Conservative Fund.
“They might be mixing it up,” Mr. Powers said of Mr. Harper’s signature on the Conservative Party’s latest fundraising call. “They want to make sure they have resources in the can. Maybe they’re worried about a little decline in fundraising because of the leadership race.”
Third-quarter fundraising totals for 2016, the most recent available, show the Liberals garnered the highest number of donors, with roughly $3.22-million raised from 35,180 contributors. That works out to an average of $91.61 per donor. The Conservatives, meanwhile, raised roughly $3.13-million from 29,073 contributors, an average of $107.70 per donor.
But thanks to more than $250,000 in transfers, the Conservatives raised the most in the third quarter at just less than $3.39-million. With only a little more than $8,000 in transfers, the Liberals raised a total of $3.23-million. The Liberals similarly had more donors than the Conservatives in the first quarter of 2016, with 35,902 donors compared to 32,502, but were edged out in the second quarter by the Conservatives who garnered donations from 1,143 more contributors over that period in all.
The 2016 fourth-quarter financial reports are due out by the end of this month.
Cory Hann, director of communications for the Conservative Party, said the party’s fundraising “remains strong,” and said since losing government in 2015, “most times if we’re not beating the Liberals, we’re extremely competitive.”
Mr. Hann said, as “expected,” there’s “definitely an effect” on central fundraising numbers as a result of the ongoing Conservative leadership race, with more than a dozen candidates appealing to the same pool of potential donors. However, he said he’ll be looking at all the numbers combined to assess “what Conservatives were able to fundraise in Q4 2016.”
“As far as [the Liberal Party’s] fundraising goes, I can offer up three words for that, it’s cash-for-access. That’s of course having an effect on the fundraising numbers coming from the Liberals, whether they’ll admit it or not,” said Mr. Hann. “We’re going to continue to fundraise off of our grassroots donors. That’s who makes us strong and that’s who continues to be there for us.”
While no numbers were yet available on the effect of Mr. Harper’s signature on the recent fundraising call, Mr. Hann said “we wouldn’t use a name if we didn’t think it would be at least somewhat successful.”
“Mr. Harper is well regarded from within the party,” he said. “Just hearing from him alone can be a big deal to a lot of our party members. So it has a twofold effect of encouraging people, reminding them that it’s important to help keep the party strong during this leadership race, and it also keeps them updated and let’s them know that Stephen Harper’s still there.”
Former prime ministers have put their names to party fundraising calls in the past, including former Liberal prime ministers Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin. However, The Hill Times could find no indication of former PMs playing a formal, albeit volunteer, role on their party’s official fundraising body.
“Former Liberal prime ministers have occasionally sent grassroots fundraising emails to Liberal supporters and attended events, but we are not aware of any who have taken on formal fundraising roles with the party once out of office,” Mr. Caley told The Hill Times.
Mr. Caley said the Conservatives “are having to re-engage Stephen Harper” and it’s “something that Liberals are paying close attention to everywhere in the country.”
For the Liberal Party, “our biggest advantage and something that’s been made possible under the leadership of Justin Trudeau is to be engaging the broadest base of grassroots supporters of any political party,” said Mr. Caley, highlighting that the party has eliminated membership fees, opening it up for anyone to register for free as a supporter. He said digital fundraising has also been a “key” growth area.
He said the party has had “six consecutive fundraising quarters where over 35,000 Canadians have chipped in.” That includes the upcoming fourth quarter for 2016.
“Close to 50,000 Canadians have registered as new Liberals since the summer alone, and what that is allowing more than ever is this really open, broad based political movement to fund all of the engagement that the Liberal Party does,” said Mr. Caley.
While he said he had no numbers to provide on the correlation between registered supporters and donations, he said the party has seen “a keen interest right away for people to volunteer, to chip in $5, $10” after registering.
“That grassroots advantage will be a very important part of our organizing on the road to 2019,” said Mr. Caley.
Andrew MacDougall, a former communications director to Mr. Harper as prime minister, said in an email to The Hill Times that his former boss is “still enormously respected by party membership.”
“The Conservative Party would be foolish not to use him to their advantage, just as the Liberals would be wrong to ignore it,” he said.
Liberal strategist Warren Kinsella said Mr. Harper has always been a “polarizing candidate,” and as a result has the dual effect of mobilizing and motivating both Conservatives and Liberals.
“The Conservatives are using him in fundraising because he’s popular with their vote, and Liberals are using him in their fundraising because he’s unpopular with theirs,” said Mr. Kinsella.
Mr. Kinsella said he used to help draft fundraising letters while working for Mr. Chrétien, and while they’re filled with sentence fragments, all caps, underlines, and bolding, “the main thing is who’s signing it.”
“These letters really work if they’re coming from the right person,” he said.
“The good news for [Conservatives] is [Mr. Harper’s] still willing to help out. The bad news for them is he’s gone. Whoever follows him, I don’t see any one of the candidates now with the skills or the ability that Harper obviously had.”
The Hill Times
The 2016 fourth quarter numbers will be out at the end of this month. As well, to note, the 2015 third quarter was the last one before that year’s federal election.