Businessman Kevin O’Leary, widely considered to be a front-runner in the Conservative Party leadership race, is bowing out of the contest in its final leg because he says his lack of support in Quebec would make it difficult for him to beat Justin Trudeau’s Liberals in the next general election.
He’s thrown his support behind Maxime Bernier (Beauce, Que.), noting that he’s going to do everything he can to get the MP elected as leader and ask his supporters to do the same.
“The Conservative Party needs someone who has the best chance of beating Trudeau. Someone who will command the support of Canadians from every region of the country and who can build a consensus among all members of the party,” Mr. O’Leary was quoted as saying in a press release distributed on the afternoon of April 26, just hours before the final leadership debate, which is taking place in Toronto.
The release went on to state that Mr. O’Leary is no longer confident that he could lead the party to victory in a general election if he were elected leader.
Mr. O’Leary campaigned primarily on growing the Canadian economy. He stated in the release that he and Mr. Bernier are “statistically tied as front runners,” that as an “outsider” he has “very weak second ballot support” in the ranked-ballot voting process, and that while he’s popular in the western provinces, he is not seeing strong support in Quebec.
“The Quebec data is a different kind of issue and a big problem for me,” Mr. O’Leary stated. “There are 78 seats in Quebec, and the Conservative Party currently holds only 12 of them. In other words, the Liberals politically own Quebec.”
Mr. O’Leary, who was born in Montreal but is not fluent in French, stated that without bolstering support for the Conservative Party in Quebec, it would be difficult to beat the Trudeau-led Liberals in the expected next federal election in 2019.
Mr. O’Leary said in a joint press conference with Mr. Bernier Wednesday afternoon that Quebec is the “Florida of Canada” in that it often decides federal elections. He said the party needs 30 seats in the province, and “looking at my numbers, I was singularly unsuccessful there.” He said his lowest support in the country was there, 12 per cent, whereas it was as high as 34 per cent in other provinces. He was trying to spend as much time as possible in the province, but realized it wasn’t enough to win more support.
The television personality—who gained celebrity status during his years as a shrewd investor on the reality shows Dragons’ Den and Shark Tank—was targeting voters between the ages of 18 and 35 and said he received strong support from within that demographic, which he now plans on helping to direct to Mr. Bernier.
Mr. O’Leary’s tone in the April 26 press release was remarkably different from the one he took late last month in an interview with The Hill Times, when he said: “At the end of the day, the membership only has one decision to make: who can beat Justin Trudeau?…I’m it. Show me one other candidate that can take that guy down.”
Mr. Bernier called Mr. O’Leary “desperate” and a “loser” after Mr. O’Leary publicly shared concerns “regarding sketchy organizers buying fraudulent memberships.” He never specifically named Mr. Bernier, but Mr. Bernier identified his campaign as the target of the allegations. “Instead of trying to win people over by putting out a platform, he’s throwing mud to try to save his campaign,” Mr. Bernier said at the time.
But the two were all smiles and handshakes at the joint press conference Wednesday afternoon. When Mr. Bernier was asked if he still thought Mr. O’Leary was a loser, he laughed and said, “He’s a winner.”
The two had a “nice competition,” said Mr. Bernier. “And now we are together.”
Mr. Bernier had said in an interview with The Hill Times in early April that he was open to making Mr. O’Leary his finance minister.
Mr. O’Leary said at the press conference Wednesday that his and Mr. Bernier’s policies “are practically identical.” They did, however, differ during their campaigning on their support for supply-managed dairy and poultry systems in Canada (Mr. Bernier is against it, Mr. O’Leary campaigned for keeping it).
Mr. O’Leary also stated he thought the Conservative Party memberships are now free of fakes. “Every one of the people on this list is a real member,” he said referring to the 259,010 members the party announced on Tuesday night it had as of March 28, the cut-off for members to be eligible to vote in the leadership race.
Mr. O’Leary stated in his press release that Mr. Bernier “has strong support in Quebec. He is perhaps the first Conservative in a long time that has a chance of winning over 40 seats there, which would materially improve our chances for a majority mandate.”
Mr. O’Leary had the support of four members of the Conservative caucus: MP Guy Lauzon (Stormont-Dundas-South Glengarry, Ont.), MP Len Webber (Calgary Confederation, Alta.), Senator Percy Mockler, and Senator David Wells. Conservative MP and leadership candidate Andrew Scheer (Regina-Qu’Appelle, Sask.) has the most caucus support, with 32 MPs and Senators backing him.
The businessman said he made the decision to drop out after being notified by the party of the final tally of eligible members to vote in the leadership, and that ballots had started being mailed to members. In the early hours of Wednesday morning, sometime between 1 and 2 a.m., he called Mr. Bernier to talk about leaving the race.
Cory Hann, the director of communications for the Conservative Party, confirmed to The Hill Times that Mr. O’Leary’s name will still appear on the ballots being mailed to members, and that under the current rules, members can still vote for Mr. O’Leary, and their second choice will then count after he’s been eliminated. “But obviously, LEOC [Leadership Election Organizing Committee]—the committee that’s in charge of the rules—can reassess and make any necessary changes that they think they have to,” he added.
Other candidates in the race were using the news of Mr. O’Leary’s decision to fundraise for their leadership bids on Wednesday afternoon.
Former MP and social conservative stalwart Pierre Lemieux in an email blast to supporters said: “You as members sent a clear message that Kevin did not represent Conservative values.”
Former House Speaker Andrew Scheer, a candidate perceived to have some of the most support, said in a Facebook post that with Mr. O’Leary no longer running, “There are only two candidates who can win this race. Me and Maxime Bernier.”
Mr. O’Leary hinted in media interviews Wednesday that he may not be done with his foray into politics. He mused he might take a shot at beating Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland in her riding of University-Rosedale in Toronto.
The O’Leary campaign was still sending out fundraising messaging throughout Wednesday morning, and Mr. O’Leary said at the press conference Wednesday afternoon that he would continue to fundraise. He suggested that the money raised would go to offset his campaign expenses. He had entered the race in January, well after many of the other candidates had already started fundraising and signing up members to vote for them. He was accused during the campaign of not being completely committed to it, as he continued to spend time doing other business in the United States.
Conservatives will vote in the new party leader in a ranked-ballot process with 10 slots on the ballot. There are now 13 candidates. The results will be released during the party’s convention on May 27 at the Toronto Congress Centre.
The remaining 13 candidates will take the stage in Toronto tonight for the final leadership debate, which will air at 6 p.m. EST.