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Conservatives’ rank and file ‘pissed off’ O’Leary quit, wondering, ‘what the hell are we left with?’

By Abbas Rana      

Rank-and-file party members are said to be ‘mad’ at former Harper cabinet ministers, like Peter MacKay, John Baird, and Jason Kenney, who they feel would have fared better in an election than who’s left.

Kevin O'Leary, pictured centre on Feb. 24 at a party he hosted in Ottawa during the Manning Conference, shook up the Conservative Party leadership race last week when he dropped out and threw his support behind Conservative MP Maxime Bernier's leadership campaign. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright
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With Kevin O’Leary gone from the Conservative leadership race, there are concerns within the party about the level of star power left and the chances any of the remaining candidates have of winning the next federal election, say insiders.

There is still resentment toward heavyweights from the former Stephen Harper cabinet, such as Peter MacKay, John Baird, Jason Kenney, and James Moore, for not entering this race and giving the Conservatives a better chance at regaining power.

In interviews with The Hill Times last week, political insiders said the party base felt that Mr. O’Leary had the best chance to bring the party back to power. Now, they’re “disappointed and pissed off” at the top tier for the old Harper cabinet for having never entered the race, describing the remaining candidates as second or third tier.

“You’ve got a lot of disappointed, pissed-off people today,” one former senior Conservative said last week. “Now, they’re mad at other people, they’re mad at MacKay, they’re mad at Baird, James Moore, Jason Kenney, or others who should have been in the race. They’re stuck with this dozen other candidates, wondering, ‘What the hell are we left with?’ ”

Keith Beardsley, who was deputy chief of staff to former prime minister Stephen Harper, told The Hill Times that he has heard from some “disappointed” Conservatives who thought certain former Harper cabinet ministers should have run in this current leadership campaign.

“I would say probably a little disappointed,” said Mr. Beardsley. “You’ve got John Baird, Peter MacKay, Jason Kenney. These are the people who had profile. They were front-bench ministers, had a lot of profile. People are a little disappointed this is the way things have turned out. You have to deal with what you are left.”

“He came, he went, and that’s it,” Mr. Beardsley said in describing Mr. O’Leary’s sudden departure from the race last week. “You can’t really say he was ever totally committed to the campaign.”

Mr. Beardsley and other Conservatives interviewed for this article said Mr. O’Leary’s departure from the leadership race and endorsement for Conservative MP Maxime Bernier (Beauce, Que.) does not mean the contest is in the bag for the Quebec MP. They said Mr. O’Leary’s endorsement gives a “big boost” to the Bernier campaign, but it remains to be seen numerically “how big” that boost is.

After the March 28 deadline to sign up new members, Mr. O’Leary announced that his campaign had signed up 35,336 members, or about 13 per cent of the total memberships. But it’s not clear how many of these supporters will follow his lead toward the Bernier camp.

Keith Beardsley, who was deputy chief of staff to former prime minister Stephen Harper, said he was not surprised by Kevin O’Leary’s decision to drop out of the race. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright

“I suspect there’ll be a chunk of people that will not vote at all,” said Mr. Beardsley. “They were in there strictly for O’Leary, nothing else, nobody else. … He’s gone and I suspect you’ll see a drop in the number of people that vote. I don’t see any mass movement to one candidate.”

Pollster Greg Lyle of Innovative Research agreed.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that Bernier just got a big boost. Whether it was enough to make him unassailable, I would say right now that is quite doubtful that he’s unassailable,” said Mr. Lyle.

The Conservative Party announced last week that the party now has 259,010 paid members eligible to vote in the leadership contest. The party gained 150,000 additional members between January and March 28. The Conservatives did not make it public how many new members each candidate signed up, but some candidates publicly announced the number of new signups for their campaigns. Conservative MP Michael Chong (Wellington-Halton Hills, Ont.) said he signed up 17,000, Lisa Raitt (Milton, Ont.) 10,600, and Kellie Leitch (Simcoe-Grey, Ont.) 30,000. Mr. Bernier’s 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.

The Conservative Party declined to confirm the membership numbers of specific campaigns.

The party started to send out leadership election ballots to party members last week, which they can mail back, go to a local polling station to cast their vote, or vote at the leadership convention in Toronto. The final result will be announced on May 27.

The Conservative Party is employing a ranked-ballot system for the leadership in which paid party members will be able to vote for up to 10 leadership candidates numerically, from their most to least preferred. If no candidate gets a majority of first-choice votes, the person with the least number of first-choice votes will be dropped and their second choices will be distributed among the other candidates and counted again. The process will be repeated until someone receives more than 50 per cent support.

After Mr. O’Leary’s departure from the contest, 13 candidates are still participating.

The nine incumbent MPs still in the race are Mr. Bernier, Mr. Chong, Ms. Leitch, Ms. Raitt, Deepak Obhrai (Calgary Forest Lawn, Alta.), 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 three former MPs in the race are Pierre Lemieux, Chris Alexander, and Andrew Saxton, and the only other one is businessman Rick Peterson.

Mr. O’Leary failed to secure significant support from the national Conservative caucus during his short-lived leadership campaign reflecting his lack of popularity amongst Conservative MPs and Senators. Up until his announcement to drop out of the race last week, he secured the support of only two MPs and two Senators, out of the 138-member national caucus.

In contrast, both Mr. Scheer and Mr. O’Toole have the support of 32 caucus members each. Mr. Bernier has the support of 16 caucus colleagues and Ms. Raitt four. Both Ms. Leitch and Mr. Chong have received endorsements from three caucus members each, and Mr. Blaney secured support from two. As of last week, other candidates had not received any declared support from any of the Conservative MPs or Senators.

Toronto Star columnist Chantal Hébert, wrote last week that there was no love lost between an overwhelming majority of Conservative caucus members and Mr. O’Leary. She said Conservative caucus members were relieved that the reality-TV star had exited the leadership contest.

“O’Leary’s abrupt exit may have saddened more Liberals than actual Conservatives,” Ms. Hébert wrote. “Many of the latter are relieved that their party has dodged a bullet. In more than a few cases though that relief is tempered by the notion that, in leaving, O’Leary may have cleared a path to victory for Maxime Bernier. His libertarian prescriptions may be as polarizing as O’Leary’s persona.”

Conservative MP Tom Lukiwski (Moose Jaw-Lake Centre-Lanigan, Sask.) told The Hill Times that he was not surprised Mr. O’Leary dropped out of the race. From the start of the leadership contest, he said he was convinced Mr. O’Leary wouldn’t have won enough support after the first ballot to win the party’s leadership.

“To me it didn’t matter whether he [Mr. O’Leary] stayed in the race or not,” said Mr. Lukiwski who is supporting Mr. Scheer in the leadership campaign. “I didn’t think he was going to win the leadership, I just didn’t think he had enough support after the first ballot and for that reason, it wasn’t a complete surprise to me when I saw him drop out.”

Meanwhile, Mr. Lyle said he was surprised with Mr. O’Leary’s decision to quit the race. He said he agreed with his reason—that his inability to speak French meant he couldn’t get enough support in Quebec to win an election—but that reason was always there and nothing had changed.

He said that in order to deliver a majority of his supporters to Mr. Bernier, Mr. O’Leary will have to work hard to convince them. Considering Mr. O’Leary’s business commitments, Mr. Lyle said it remains unlikely he will be able to do that.

“A single announcement before people get their ballots is not enough,” said Mr. Lyle. “He has other things to do with his life, and I don’t think he’s going to be a permanent player on the scene.”

In a press release announcing his departure from the race on April 26, Mr. O’Leary, who was born in Montreal, said: “The Quebec data is a different kind of issue and a big problem for me. There are 78 seats in Quebec, and the Conservative Party currently holds only 12 of them. In other words, the Liberals politically own Quebec. Without growing the Conservative base in Quebec, beating Trudeau in 2019 would be a huge challenge.”

Mr. O’Leary also said his extensive polling and personal conversations with Canadians over the past several months showed that he and Mr. Bernier were statistically tied as front-runners, he had weak second-ballot support due to being a party outsider; he’s extremely strong in the West, and failed to win “material support” in Quebec.

In the press conference in Toronto the same day, Mr. O’Leary described Quebec as the “Florida of Canada” that’s critical in the outcome of federal elections.

“Look at how many times Quebec has determined the federal outcomes,” said Mr. O’Leary. “It is the Florida of Canada, it often decides for the country. Trudeau has to go, and [Mr. Bernier] is the man to replace him.”

Despite running neck-and-neck with Mr. Bernier for much of the campaign, the most recent tracking of Conservative Party members by Mainstreet Research, done for iPolitics, showed Mr. O’Leary had widened a lead with support of more than 26 per cent of respondents as a first choice. Mr. Scheer had moved into second place with almost 17 per cent, and Mr. Bernier was third with 14 per cent. The poll also found that Ms. Leitch had 23.6 per cent second-choice support from those who would have voted for Mr. O’Leary as a first choice, and Mr. Bernier had 23.4 per cent. This polling took place between April 18 and 22.

Mr. O’Leary failed to get any significant national caucus support during his leadership campaign. Up until his announcement, he secured the support of only two MPs and two Senators, out of the 138-member national caucus.

Former Conservative Sen. Marjory LeBreton, a top adviser to Mr. O’Leary, denied that the businessman quit because he would’ve lost the leadership contest.

“That’s absolutely false. He was clearly in the lead,” said Ms. LeBreton in an interview with The Hill Times. “All of us believed it would have probably been many, many ballots. But as he said publicly, ‘I would have won the leadership, but then what?’ ”

Former Conservative Sen. Marjory LeBreton served as senior adviser to Kevin O’Leary’s leadership campaign. The Hill Times photograph by Cynthia Münster

Ms. LeBreton said she was one of the few senior advisers whom Mr. O’Leary had consulted before making the decision. She declined to get into the specifics of the decision-making process that Mr. O’Leary used to drop out of the race.

Ms. LeBreton said she has not decided who she will support now, but that five leadership candidates have reached out to seek her support.

John Reynolds, co-chair of Mr. Bernier’s campaign, said Mr. Bernier is the only candidate who can win the next election for the Conservatives. He said Quebec is the key to win the next election, and other than Mr. Bernier, no one else can deliver this province.

Former Conservative MP John Reynolds, right, pictured with former House Speaker Peter Milliken, says Conservative MP Maxime Bernier is the only leadership candidate who can win Quebec for the Conservatives. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright

“Maxime can win the next election,” said Mr. Reynolds. “The others would have a difficult time because of Quebec.”

Mr. Reynolds said he’s sure Mr. O’Leary will deliver a majority of his supporters to Mr. Bernier.

“I’m sure he can’t deliver 100 per cent of his delegates, but I’m sure he can deliver a majority of them,” said Mr. Reynolds.

Conservatives Who Did Back Kevin O’Leary
Guy Lauzon Conservative MP
Len Webber Conservative MP
Percy Mockler Conservative Senator
David Wells Conservative Senator
Steve Clark Ontario Progressive Conservative MPP, deputy leader
Karla MacFarlane Nova Scotia Progressive Conservative MLA
Julian Fantino former Conservative MP
Ken Hughes former Progressive Conservative MP and Alberta PC MLA and minister
Tim Uppal former Conservative MP
Bernard Valcourt former Conservative MP
Marjory LeBreton former Conservative Senator
Mike Harris former Ontario Progressive Conservative premier
Rick Perkins former Conservative candidate
Erika Barootes former political staffer to the former Alberta PC government
Andrew Boddington former Ontario Progressive Conservative Party executive director
Erinn Broshko former federal Conservative candidate
Jim Burnett adviser to the Ontario PC Party leader
John Capobianco former federal Conservative candidate
Mike Coates former Conservative staffer, former Hill & Knowlton vice-chair
Erin Chutter former political staffer
Amanda Galbraith former Conservative staffer and spokesperson for Toronto Mayor John Tory
Ari. S. Laskin former Ontario PC staffer
Sara MacIntyre former Conservative staffer
Amy Mills former Conservative staffer
Peter McQuaid former party president of P.E.I. Progressive Conservatives
Naresh Raghubeer former aide to a former Ontario Progressive Conservative MPP
Patrick Robert former Conservative staffer
Chris Rougier former Conservative Party staffer
Doug Schweitzer former CEO of the Manitoba PC Party
Lesli Tomlin former Conservative Party staffer
Norm Vocino former Conservative staffer

arana@hilltimes.com

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