Former Conservative leadership contestant and business tycoon Kevin O‚ÄôLeary said he had to put aside his ego for the greater good of the party.
He told The Hill Times in a May 16 interview alongside¬†the candidate he‚Äôs now supporting, Maxime Bernier (Beauce, Que.), that some members of the Conservative caucus, ‚Äúwho will remain nameless,‚ÄĚ gave Mr. O‚ÄôLeary advice before he dropped out of the race: ‚Äúdon‚Äôt be selfish,” is what he says they told him. “Do what it takes [for the party] to win.‚ÄĚ
‚ÄúI understand that,‚ÄĚ Mr. O‚ÄôLeary said, despite the fact that ‚Äúit hurts not to take the leadership.‚ÄĚ He describes the decision as ‚Äúa test of my ego.‚ÄĚ
In the end, he dropped out, throwing his support to Mr. Bernier. Mr. O‚ÄôLeary cited a lack of support in Quebec as the reason for leaving the race, and says Mr. Bernier is an ‚Äúasset‚ÄĚ to the Conservative Party, as a ‚Äútrue Quebecer that has traction in Alberta and B.C.‚ÄĚ
Mr. O‚ÄôLeary says most of his supporters have also moved over to Mr. Bernier‚Äôs campaign, but not everyone agrees with that statement. While some of the public supporters of Mr. O‚ÄôLeary are supporting Mr. Bernier, former Senator and O‚ÄôLeary supporter Marjory LeBreton says she doesn‚Äôt think that‚Äôs an ‚Äúaccurate assumption.‚ÄĚ
Mr. O‚ÄôLeary‚Äôs sudden departure from the Conservative leadership race last month meant that all of his supporters were up for grabs for the 13 other candidates.
‚ÄúKevin‚Äôs exit from the race fervently changed the race,‚ÄĚ said Ms. LeBreton. Shortly after, those following Mr. O‚ÄôLeary to Mr. Bernier‚Äôs campaign ‚Äúexpressed the wish that I would follow Kevin‚Äôs lead.‚ÄĚ
Ms. LeBreton said she ‚Äúmade it clear from the very beginning that I didn‚Äôt think that it would necessarily hold that people [who] supported Kevin would automatically support Bernier.‚ÄĚ
“There‚Äôs definitely not a mass exodus of people to one campaign.” -Crystal Smalldon, former campaign organizer for Kevin O’Leary, now working for Andrew Scheer
Crystal Smalldon says she worked on Mr. O’Leary’s campaign as an organizer for Ontario’s “golden horseshoe” region. After Mr. O’Leary announced his decision to leave the leadership race, Ms. Smalldon said she received seven phone calls within the hour¬†from competing campaigns asking for her support.
She decided to support¬†Andrew¬†Scheer (Regina-Qu’Appelle, Sask.),¬†whose campaign she is now working for.
Asked where most of her¬†former colleagues have ended up, Ms. Smalldon said, “everyone‚Äôs kind of split all over the place. There‚Äôs definitely not a mass exodus of people to one campaign.” She said she’s still in touch with her former colleagues from Mr. O’Leary’s campaign, and that¬†“most of the people that have gone [to work for Mr. Bernier]¬†have only gone over there for a job. Those are their words.”¬†
Mr. O’Leary’s former campaign chair, Mike Coates, who is now supporting Mr. Bernier, responded by saying, “virtually all our volunteer provincial [chairpeople] and organization outside of Quebec came to Bernier. Quebec is the exception where it was about half.” He said he did not know Ms. Smalldon.
Working on Mr. Scheer’s campaign in southern Ontario, Ms. Smalldon said the members who¬†were signed up by Mr. O’Leary’s campaign were “easily sway-able” to Mr. Scheer, because they “[go] with who they trust.”
But Mr. O‚ÄôLeary said that even if 20 per cent of the members he signed up for the party made Mr. Bernier their first choice for leader, it would have a big impact on Mr. Bernier‚Äôs outcome.
‚ÄúI think we did extremely well in integrating the campaigns,‚ÄĚ he said. ‚ÄúYou‚Äôll never get 100 per cent.‚ÄĚ
Notably, three of Mr. O‚ÄôLeary‚Äôs organizers in Quebec did not follow him to Mr. Bernier‚Äôs campaign, and instead publicly announced their support for Mr. Scheer, including Norm Vocino, Mr. O‚ÄôLeary‚Äôs former ‚Äúchief organizer for Quebec,‚ÄĚ as a press release from Mr. Scheer‚Äôs campaign put it.
But Mr. Bernier dismisses the suggestion that¬†he is lacking in support from Quebecers, saying that his own polls show him at 58 per cent popularity in his home province. Mr. O‚ÄôLeary maintains that the one factor that led to his dropping out of the leadership race was his own lack of support in Quebec, and he doesn‚Äôt think Mr. Bernier has that same challenge.
‚ÄúIf you can win 30 seats in Quebec, you can see the path to success,‚ÄĚ Mr. O‚ÄôLeary said.
Of course, Conservatives will remember that former prime minister Stephen Harper won a majority government with only five seats in Quebec.
But Mr. O‚ÄôLeary says that‚Äôs something he‚Äôs thought of, and even discussed with Mr. Harper. Because the NDP and the Bloc Qu√©b√©cois took most of the seats in Quebec that year, it took the province ‚Äúout of the game.‚ÄĚ¬†
‚ÄúThat‚Äôs not going to be the case in 15 months,‚ÄĚ Mr. O‚ÄôLeary said.
Presently, Ms. LeBreton remains undecided about who she‚Äôd like to see be the next leader of the Conservative Party of Canada, though she hasn‚Äôt ruled out Mr. Bernier being at the top of her ballot.
She said she‚Äôs torn at the moment between four candidates: Lisa Raitt (Milton, Ont.), Erin O’Toole (Durham, Ont.), Michael Chong (Wellington-Halton Hills, Ont.), and Mr. Bernier.¬†
From Mr. O‚ÄôLeary‚Äôs advisory board, The Hill Times confirmed that Mr. Coates, Rick Perkins, John Capobianco, and Mr. O‚ÄôLeary‚Äôs former campaign manager Chris Rougier are all supporting Mr. Bernier in the final weeks of this race.
Several others, including an early¬†caucus endorser of Mr. O’Leary, Guy Lauzon (Stormont-Dundas-South Glengarry, Ont.), Perry Dellelce, and Todd Halpern, refused to answer any questions about who, if anyone, they were supporting in the race after Mr. O‚ÄôLeary dropped out.¬†
Former Alberta MP Ken Hughes, who was a member of Mr. O’Leary’s advisory board, said in an email that “several of the candidates are worthy of at least one of the 10 votes.”
Others, including former Ontario premier Mike Harris, did not respond to a request for comment by deadline.
Mr. Coates told The Hill Times that ‚Äúmost‚ÄĚ of Mr. O‚ÄôLeary‚Äôs campaign organizers are working for Mr. Bernier‚Äôs campaign now. The campaign organizers are separate from the advisory board Mr. O‚ÄôLeary formed in the early days of his campaign.
Since switching his support to Mr. Bernier, Mr. Coates said he has been busy ensuring that most of Mr. O‚ÄôLeary‚Äôs campaign organizers, paid staff, and unpaid volunteers, are working to get Mr. Bernier elected.
‚ÄúI would say amongst the 35,000 [new party members] we signed, first choice will go to Bernier, second choice will not vote,‚ÄĚ Mr. Coates said. ‚ÄúThere will be a certain amount of erosion,‚ÄĚ he added, insofar as some members who signed up only to support Mr. O‚ÄôLeary might not vote at all. But he doesn‚Äôt think they‚Äôll go to other candidates. ¬†
‚ÄúFrom the research that we did prior to Kevin exiting, just prior, we knew that a minimum of 50 per cent [of supporters] would go to Bernier,‚ÄĚ Mr. Coates said, because when polled, those supporters said they would choose Mr. Bernier as their second choice after Mr. O‚ÄôLeary. ‚ÄúAnd then we knew that once he made a call, he could have an influence beyond that. He could boost that percentage up,‚ÄĚ Mr. Coates said.
Mr. Perkins, a former O‚ÄôLeary organizer in Atlantic Canada, said he‚Äôs supporting Mr. Bernier, though it has nothing to do with Mr. O‚ÄôLeary. Mr. Perkins, who at one point sat as the party‚Äôs national treasurer, said he takes Mr. O‚ÄôLeary at ‚Äúface value‚ÄĚ when he said his reason for backing out was a lack of support in Quebec.
He said he and most of the other organizers in Atlantic Canada have been helping out with Mr. Bernier‚Äôs campaign, though ‚Äúit‚Äôs pretty low-key now because most people have voted.‚ÄĚ
Ballots were mailed out to eligible members last month, around the same time that Mr. O‚ÄôLeary left the race. His name remains on the ballot.
Mr. Perkins said the Quebec organizers who went to Mr. Scheer‚Äôs campaign instead of Mr. Bernier‚Äôs ‚Äúwere unhappy with Kevin suggesting that he was unable to organize sufficient support in Quebec, and I think they felt a personal slight in that.‚ÄĚ
Mr. Capobianco said he‚Äôs also supporting Mr. Bernier, though he was ‚Äúsurprised‚ÄĚ and ‚Äúupset‚ÄĚ when Mr. O‚ÄôLeary backed out of the race. But both Mr. Capobianco and Mr. Perkins had been considering Mr. Bernier before Mr. O‚ÄôLeary entered the race, so they said it was natural they support him now.
Having to settle for his second choice, though, Mr. Capobianco said he ‚Äústill disagrees‚ÄĚ with Mr. O‚ÄôLeary‚Äôs decision. ‚ÄúI think he realizes that once you enter politics in leadership, it‚Äôs a completely different animal,‚ÄĚ he said. ‚ÄúFrontrunners rarely just drop out of races.‚ÄĚ
Speaking of, Mr. O‚ÄôLeary himself is currently campaigning with Mr. Bernier while also being back at his job as a “shark” on the American business drama Shark Tank.¬†
Mr. Bernier said he has seen a “huge” boost in support for his campaign since Mr. O’Leary’s departure and subsequent endorsement.
“We were tied, we were in very strong competition before that, but when Kevin decided to be on our side, I gained a lot of momentum,” Mr. Bernier said.¬†He thinks the candidates to beat now are Mr. Scheer and Mr. O’Toole.¬†
Mr. O’Leary says he hasn‚Äôt ruled out a run for a seat in the House of Commons come 2019, and he has his eye on Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland‚Äôs riding of University-Rosedale in Toronto, a typically safe Liberal riding.
Regardless of whether or not he runs, Mr. Bernier says he will look to Mr. O‚ÄôLeary for economic advice through the 2019 election.