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O’Leary exit boosts Bernier, but race still ‘wide open’ as campaigns reach out for down-ballot support

By Abbas Rana      

Some Conservative MPs question the assumption that most of Kevin O’Leary’s 35,000 supporters will vote for Maxime Bernier. But right now, it's his race to lose.

Conservative MP Maxime Bernier is leading in the Conservative Party leadership polls. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright
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Kevin O’Leary’s exit from the Conservative leadership race has altered its dynamics in favour of Maxime Bernier, but MPs supporting other leadership candidates say the race is still “wide open,” and campaign teams are reaching out to rivals in hopes of securing second-, third-, and subsequent-ballot support.

Conservative MP Ed Fast says the leadership race is “wide open.” The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright.

“This is a wide-open race,” said four-term Conservative MP and former cabinet minister Ed Fast (Abbotsford, B.C.), who is supporting Conservative MP Erin O’Toole (Durham, Ont.) for leader.

“What we’re doing is we’re very genuinely reaching out to leadership candidates and to party members, making very clear if they’ve already made a decision on the first ballot and the candidate of choice doesn’t win and drops off the ballot, we would be pleased to receive their second vote.”

Supporters of different leadership candidates told The Hill Times that Mr. O’Leary’s endorsement has bolstered Mr. Bernier’s (Beauce, Que.) numbers but that is mainly limited to the first ballot, not down-ballot support. For the second, third, or the subsequent ballots, they said, no one can predict how things will play out.

“I don’t accept any of the polls,” said Mr. Fast. “I don’t think anybody is going to be able to manipulate their decision. At the end of the day, they’re going to make their own decisions.”

Conservative MP Peter Kent (Thornhill, Ont.), who is supporting Michael Chong (Wellington-Halton Hills, Ont.), agreed.

“I’m an old fart, and I hold to John Diefenbaker’s view of polls; that they’re for dogs,” said Mr. Kent. “There’re no givens at this point. It’s the role of spin-meisters to try and convince people to create a bandwagon affect. But I think it’s wide open, and the preferential ballot is not as predictable as a delegated convention. Anything can happen.”

Conservative MP Marilyn Gladu questions the assumption that most of Kevin O’Leary’s supporters would now vote for Conservative MP Maxime Berner. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright.

Rookie Conservative MP Marilyn Galdu (Sarnia-Lambton, Ont.) disputed that Mr. O’Leary’s endorsement would provide a big boost to Mr. Bernier. She said she did not believe most of Mr. O’Leary’s supporters would now vote for Mr. Bernier.

“I don’t think his assumption that everyone who was brought into the party through him would naturally go to Maxime is a true assumption,” said Ms. Gladu who is supporting Andrew Scheer (Regina- Qu’Appelle, Sask.). “I don’t think that’s going to happen.”

She said “most” Conservatives are happy that Mr. O’Leary left the contest, explaining that he took away the media focus from other candidates and serious policy discussions.

“Most people are genuinely happy that he’s not in the race,” said Ms. Gladu.

“Kevin O’Leary being involved in the race, if I could say, made things a little bit more like a circus, and the media was putting more of their focus on Kevin O’Leary and some of the ridiculous things that came out of his mouth. Now that he’s not in the race, they have to focus on the remaining candidates. The remaining candidates are getting more airtime. [People are] getting more of a chance to get to know them. That’s important,” said Ms. Gladu.

In last week’s issue of The Hill Times, Conservative insiders said rank and file members of the Conservative Party were concerned about Mr. O’Leary’s exit from the leadership race because they saw him as having the best chance of winning against Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) in the next federal election. But Mr. O’Leary isn’t popular in the Conservative caucus.

Conservative MP Dan Albas (Central Okanagan-Similkameen-Nicola, B.C.), who is the B.C. co-chair of the Bernier campaign, said his candidate’s campaign received a significant boost from the O’Leary endorsement. But, Mr. Albas was cautiously optimistic about the prospects of Mr. Bernier winning the leadership.

“Mr. Bernier has received quite a boost, but I respect every voter and don’t take anyone for granted,” said Mr. Albas.” I know Mr. Bernier takes a very similar approach.”

He said a significant number of O’Leary’s campaign staff and volunteers have joined the Bernier campaign, but declined to share any numbers.

“A lot of them have chosen to come onside right across the country,” said Mr. Albas.

By the March 28 deadline to sign up new members, Mr. O’Leary said he had signed up 35,336 members, or about 13 per cent of the total 260,000 memberships. But it’s not clear how many of these supporters will follow Mr. O’Leary’s lead to the Bernier camp.

On April 26, reality-TV personality and businessman Mr. O’Leary, who was considered to be the front-runner, dropped out of the race, saying he didn’t have enough support in Quebec. He said he could have won the leadership of the Conservative Party, but would not have been able to unseat Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) in the next federal election in 2019.

“The Quebec data is a different kind of issue and a big problem for me,” Mr. O’Leary said in a press release announcing his departure from the leadership race. “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.”

Jenni Byrne, a former top Conservative strategist who managed the last two federal elections for her party, challenged Mr. O’Leary’s reasoning and described it as “a convenient excuse.”

“It’s a narrative that Max is going to want to push, but in the last eight general elections, Quebec has only voted twice with the [party that won] government,” Ms. Byrne told CTV’s Question Period host Evan Solomon on April 30. “I think it makes for a convenient argument, but it goes to the fact that he [O’Leary] actually fundamentally doesn’t understand politics in this country.”

Ms. Byrne has not publicly endorsed any candidate, but has donated more than $1,500 to Mr. O’Toole’s campaign this year and last year.

In the 2015 federal election, Conservatives won only 12 of the 78 seats in Quebec, the Liberals won 40, the NDP 16, and Bloc Québécois 10. The 2011 election, in which the Conservatives won a majority government under former prime minister Stephen Harper, the party won only five of the 75 seats in Quebec, the NDP 59, Liberals seven, and the Bloc won four.

After dropping out of the race, Mr. O’Leary threw his support behind Mr. Bernier and said he would work with the Quebec MP to help him win the leadership and the 2019 election. He also mused about the possibility of running as a Conservative candidate in the next election against Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland in the riding University-Rosedale, Ont., where Mr. O’Leary lives.

For the May 27 leadership convention, 13 candidates are vying for the party’s top job. Nine are incumbent MPs: Mr. Bernier, Mr. Chong, Kellie Leitch (Simcoe-Grey, Ont.), Lisa Raitt (Milton, Ont.), Deepak Obhrai (Calgary Forest Lawn, Alta.), Mr. Scheer, Mr. O’Toole, Steven Blaney (Bellechasse-Les Etchemins-Lévis, Que.), and Brad Trost (Saskatoon-University, Sask.).

There are also three former MPs in Pierre Lemieux, Chris Alexander, and Andrew Saxton, and the one businessman with Rick Peterson.

According to a poll conducted by Maintstreet Research for iPolitics after Mr. O’Leary’s exit from the contest, Mr. Bernier was leading with 31.1 per cent support, followed by Mr. Scheer with 22 per cent support, Mr. O’Toole with 11.2 per cent, and Ms. Leitch with 8.1 per cent support. The poll of 1,004 Conservative Party members was conducted from April 29 to April 30 and had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.09 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

For other candidates, the poll showed the following support: Ms. Raitt at 5.4 per cent; Mr. Lemieux and Mr. Chong at 4.1 per cent; Mr. Trost at 3.5 per cent; Mr. Blaney and Mr. Alexander at 1.8 per cent; Mr. Peterson at 0.8 per cent; Mr. Obhrai at 0.5 per cent; and Mr. Saxton at 0.4 per cent.

An analysis conducted by CBC’s Eric Grenier showed last week that Mr. Bernier was the clear front-runner, according to an index he designed that was based on the average results of four different metrics: endorsement points, fundraising, contributors, and polls.

The top four rankings of Mr. Grenier’s index mirrored the Mainstreet poll. Mr. Bernier had a score of 25.7 per cent, followed by Mr. Scheer with 16.9 per cent, Mr. O’Toole with 15.2 per cent, and Ms. Leitch with 11.8 per cent.

According to the first quarter fundraising numbers of all leadership candidates released by Elections Canada, Mr. Bernier raised the most of all candidates. He raised $1,031,312; Mr. O’Leary who is not in the race, now raised $1,029,568; Ms. Leitch $536,419; Mr. O’Toole $424,347; Mr. Scheer $403,014; Mr. Chong $283,978; Mr. Lemieux $237,694; Ms. Raitt 208,368; Mr. Trost $120,893; Mr. Saxton $94,114; Mr. Alexander $88,053; Mr. Peterson $61,743; Mr. Blaney $47,031; and Mr. Obhrai $13,372.

For the May 27 leadership vote, 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.

All 338 ridings across the country are weighted equally and have 100 points each, making the total 33,800 points. The leadership contest winner will need at least 16,901 points, or just more than 50 per cent of the points available.

The Conservative Party announced two weeks ago that 150,000 new members joined the Conservative Party between January and end of March. The party did not say how many members each candidate signed up. Some, however, publicly announced their membership numbers. Mr. Chong said he signed up 17,000 members; Ms. Raitt 10,600; and Ms. Leitch 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 publicly release their membership numbers.

The Conservative Party started to send out ballots to paid party members eligible to vote two weeks ago. Members can mail back their ballots, vote at regional polling stations, or cast their vote at the leadership convention in Toronto on May 27, when the winner will be announced.

arana@hilltimes.com

The Hill Times

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