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Conservative leadership race enters ‘horse-trading phase’ and candidates are making deals

By Abbas Rana      

Rival candidates’ and their strategists’ outreach to each other started after the membership-signup deadline of March 28.

It's almost show time: Conservative leadership candidates Maxime Bernier, Andrew Scheer, Erin O'Toole, Lisa Raitt and Andrew Saxton, pictured Nov. 14, 2016, at a leadership debate. Leadership candidates are reaching out to Conservative MPs to seek their second-, third- and subsequent-ballot support, says Conservative MP Tom Lukiwski. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright
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With the Conservative leadership campaign in the home stretch, candidates and their top strategists are now reaching out to Parliamentarians, rival leadership candidates’ campaign officials and supporters, and building alliances for second-, third-, and subsequent-ballot support as none of the 14 candidates is likely to win on the first ballot in this close contest.

“The current phase of the leadership race is the horse-trading phase,” said leadership candidate and seven-term Conservative MP Deepak Obhrai (Calgary Forest Lawn, Alta.). The leadership convention takes place on May 27 in Toronto. “Every candidate is going to make a deal. It’s about who is going to support whom? Now we know that it’s impossible to win on the first ballot.”

Mr. Obhrai, 67, who was first elected in the 1997 election as a Reform Party MP, in 2000 for the Canadian Alliance, and has been re-elected as a Conservative in every election since, described the final leg of the contest as the “fun phase.”

Conservative MP Deepak Obhrai, right, pictured with Conservative MP Gord Brown, says the Conservative Party leadership contest is in the ‘horse-trading phase’ now. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright

He declined to get into the specifics of the negotiations that leadership candidates and their campaign officials are having with each other. But he said if a leadership candidate wants to recommend another candidate for down-ballot support, that candidate can publicly issue a statement or could make a suggestion privately.

“You can make a public statement or privately tell your supporters,” Mr. Obhrai said.

He said the rival candidates’ and their strategists’ outreach to each other started after the membership-signup deadline of March 28. Mr. Obhrai said all candidates now know where he or she stands in terms of membership numbers and is in a better position to negotiate with other campaigns. He declined to say how many memberships his campaign has signed up.

The Conservative Party is processing all the memberships submitted to the party and is expected to release final membership numbers by the end of this month.

“We’re still processing and reviewing memberships, and yes, it still looks like it will be closer to the end of the month before we’ll have the final number,” party spokesman Cory Hann wrote in an email to The Hill Times.

Some leadership campaigns released how many new members they signed up. Kevin O’Leary said he signed up 33,366 members, Michael Chong (Wellington-Halton Hills, Ont.) 17,000, Lisa Raitt (Milton, Ont.) 10,600, and Kellie Leitch (Simcoe-Grey, Ont.) 30,000. Maxime Bernier’s (Beauce, Que.) campaign wouldn’t provide a number, but said they were able to match Mr. O’Leary’s sales. Other campaigns did not release their membership numbers.

Mr. Hann, last week, declined to confirm the veracity of the numbers announced by different leadership candidates.

The 14 candidates seeking the party’s top job include nine current MPs, three former MPs and two businessmen.

The sitting MPs are Mr. Bernier, Mr. Obhrai, Mr. Chong, Ms. Leitch, Ms. Raitt, Andrew Scheer (Regina-Qu’Appelle, Sask.), Erin O’Toole (Durham, Ont.), Steven Blaney (Bellechasse -Les Etchemins -Lévis, Que.), and Brad Trost (Saskatoon-University, Sask.).

The former MPs are MPs Pierre Lemieux, Chris Alexander and Andrew Saxton, and the businessmen include Mr. O’Leary and Rick Peterson.

For the May 27 Conservative leadership convention in Toronto, a ranked-ballot system will be used, in which party members will vote for up to 10 leadership candidates numerically, from their most to least preferred. The person with the least number of first-choice votes will be dropped after the first ballot. The lower-ranked choices on the eliminated candidates’ ballots will be distributed among the other candidates and counted again. The process will be repeated until someone receives more than 50 per cent support.

All 338 ridings across the country are weighted equally and have 100 points each, with the total 33,800 points up for grabs. The winner will need at least 16,901 points, or 50 per cent plus one of the available points.

Conservative MP Tom Lukiwski (Moose Jaw-Lake Centre-Lanigan, Sask.), who has endorsed Mr. Scheer, told The Hill Times that he has been approached by a “good number” of leadership candidates for the down-ballot support. But he said in calls to his riding association members, he only makes unsolicited suggestions for first-ballot support to avoid “mixed messaging.”

However, if members ask for any recommendations on second- or third-ballot support, Mr. Lukiwski said he provides an opinion. He declined to say what kind of opinion he’s giving.

“Every candidate is attempting to convince Members of Parliament if they’re not giving them the first-ballot support, to try and give them their second- or third-ballot support,” said Mr. Lukiwski. “That’s just a very strategic thing to do and very obvious thing to do. Almost all of our leadership candidates are trying to garner second-, third-, even fourth-ballot support if they feel they don’t have the MP’s first-ballot support.”

Mr. Lukiwski said when other leadership candidates seek down-ballot support from MPs, they want not only the MP’s support, but also want them to deliver their riding association members’ support as well.

“They like us to try and use our influence to our constituents, to let our constituents know that I’m supporting so and so on my second choice and third choice and so forth,” Mr. Lukiwski said.

The 138-member national Conservative caucus is composed of 99 MPs and 39 Senators. Of the 99 MPs, 66 have endorsed leadership candidates. Interim Conservative Leader Rona Ambrose (Sturgeon River-Parkland, Alta.), Deputy Leader Denis Lebel (Lac-Saint-Jean, Que.), Chief Opposition Whip Gord Brown (Leeds-Grenville-Thousand Islands, Ont.), and House Leader Candice Bergen (Portage-Lisgar, Man.) have not made any endorsements due to their positions. Conservative MP Diane Finley (Haldimand-Norfolk, Ont.) is also staying neutral because she is a member of the Conservative Leadership Election Organization Committee.

Another 20 Conservative MPs have not yet endorsed any candidate.

Of the 39 Senators, 22 have endorsed leadership candidates.

Mr. Scheer has received the most caucus endorsements. He has the support of 24 MPs and eight Senators, followed by Mr. O’Toole (Durham, Ont.) who has the support of 26 MPs and two Senators.

Mr. Bernier has the support of six MPs and six Senators. Ms. Raitt has the support of three MPs and one Senator. Ms. Leitch has the support of three MPs. Mr. Chong has the support of two MPs and one Senator. Mr. O’Leary has the support of two MPs and two Senators. And Mr. Blaney has the support of two Senators.

Conservative MP Peter Kent (Thornhill, Ont.), who is supporting Mr. Chong, acknowledged to The Hill Times that there are ongoing negotiations between different campaigns. He added that a number of other leadership campaigns have reached out to him to seek his down ballot support.

Conservative MP Peter Kent, who is supporting Michael Chong, acknowledged to The Hill Times that there are ongoing negotiations between different campaigns. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright

“Of course there will be conversations at various levels,” said Mr. Kent. “It’s not for me to negotiate with other candidates. I’ve been subject to approaches from other candidates’ campaigns about my second, third or fourth or fifth ballot. For the moment, it’s early days and listening to all.”

Conservative MP Tony Clement (Parry Sound-Muskoka, Ont.), who is supporting Mr. Bernier’s campaign, denied that Mr. Bernier’s people are negotiating with other campaigns. However, he said that when campaign staff calls party members, they do ask for down-ballot support from the ones who are not supporting Mr. Bernier on first ballot.

“When we’re doing our phone banking, if we find someone who isn’t with Max on the first ballot, we’ll ask him ‘Hey, would you consider supporting Max on the second ballot,’ ” said Mr. Clement. “We’ll have a list of people that could be potential supporters down ballot and then we’ll be able to keep them in our sights as we get closer to the voting day.”

Mr. Clement said the Conservative Party is providing partially updated membership lists to candidates as they’re ready. The last list that the party provided to candidates, about two weeks ago, had about 130,000 members, he said.

“The party is releasing the lists on a regular basis as they confirm that people are valid members,” said Mr. Clement. “We still have a partial list, which is a larger list than from Dec. 31, let’s say, but it’s still not the final list which we won’t get until April 28.

“They’re doing it as they work their way through the last-minute surge of membership sales.”

Conservative MP Gerard Deltell (Louis-Saint-Laurent, Que.), who is supporting Mr. O’Toole, said he’s not aware of any ongoing negotiations among campaigns. But he said he’s campaigning for Mr. O’Toole not only in his own riding, but also reaching out to party members across the country.

Conservative MP Gerard Deltell is supporting Erin O’Toole’s leadership campaign. The Hill Times photograph by Maureen McEwan

“I’m talking to members, telling them Erin O’Toole is the best choice for everybody,” Mr. Deltell said. “I’m talking to members in my riding, in other ridings, from coast to coast, where I can make a difference or I can try to convince someone.”

arana@hilltimes.com

The Hill Times

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