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Social conservatives propel Andrew Scheer to Conservative leadership

A narrow victory means the new party chief will have to extend olive branches in all directions, says a member of one rival campaign.

Andrew Scheer beat perceived frontrunner Maxime Bernier to win the leadership of the Conservative Party of Canada. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright
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The new Conservative Party leader owes his leadership election win, in large part, to the social conservative vote, and now it’s Andrew Scheer’s turn to deliver for social conservatives or the Conservative Party may lose their support in 2019, says a rival candidate.

“Frankly, looks like my voters were part of [what] put him over the top,” said Conservative MP Brad Trost (Saskatoon-University, Sask.) who along with former Conservative MP Pierre Lemieux ran on a socially conservative platform for the leadership of the Conservative Party.

“Me and Pierre Lemieux had about 15 per cent of [the points] on the first ballot. That’s the hard core social conservative [vote], and they cut disproportionately to Mr. Scheer. Had they even split 50-50, he would not be the leader today. So, that tells you pretty much how this thing went down.”

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Mr. Trost, who came in fourth place in the leadership contest, said that if his fellow Saskatchewan MP is “wise,” he would pay close attention to issues, such as abortion, that are important to social conservative voters. If Mr. Scheer failed to do that, the Conservative Party will not receive the support of those voters in the next election, said Mr. Trost.

“If he’s wise he will,” he said. “If he doesn’t, well, they can stay home, they can vote for minor parties. There are a lot of things that can be done.”

Conservative MP Tom Lukiwski (Moose Jaw-Lake Centre-Lanigan, Sask.), who supported Mr. Scheer in the leadership campaign, agreed that the social conservative vote played a key role in the new leader’s success.

“They played a huge role in Andrew’s victory. Between Pierre and Brad, they had about 15 per cent of the total [points],” Mr. Lukiwski told The Hill Times.

“As soon as Brad dropped off the ballot, Andrew gained four points on Maxime, and that played a very large part in his win.”

He said Mr. Scheer will listen to all factions within the party, including social conservatives.

“Andrew has always said that he’s always willing to listen and speak and have a conversation with all factions within our party, including fiscal conservatives, social conservatives, libertarians, you name it,” said Mr. Lukiwski. “He’s amenable to discussion on a number of fronts. I don’t think he’s a one-issue candidate, certainly far from it. Many of the individual elements within the Conservative big tent will appreciate that Andrew is their leader.”

In a press conference shortly after his win, Mr. Scheer said he “believes in the right of individual members to have their say,” in response to a question on whether or not he would allow members to put forth bills on abortion.

He added he wouldn’t put himself in a “binary box,” and that he believed the role of the leader of the party was to find issues on which the party was united.

It was a tense countdown that went all the way to the 13th ballot before Mr. Scheer finally clinched the leadership.

Mr. Scheer has been the MP for Regina-Qu’Appelle, Sask. since 2004, and was speaker of the House of Commons from 2011 to 2015. He was the Conservative House leader up until announcing his leadership campaign in September 2016.

Lemieux’s drop-off a turning point

Many of those in attendance eagerly crowded the doors to the main convention hall before they opened around 4:30, while others stood, signs in hand, waiting to cheer their candidate of choice into the room. With anticipation in the air, convention-goers took their seats while a band played instrumental covers, a cluster of blue and red balloons bearing the party’s logo hanging overhead.

The evening’s events started off behind schedule, with many attendees, and some candidates, still mingling and speaking to media outside the main hall well past the five-minute warning. There was a long line for the cash bar.

Despite some anger bubbling after doors to the voting room were closed promptly at 4 p.m., which left a number of people—some delayed by heavy traffic—unable to cast their votes, spirits among the roughly 2,000 attendees seemed high.

The first surprise of the evening was when Mr. Trost placed fourth on the first ballot, and stayed there throughout. But the socially conservative MP from Saskatchewan placing fourth in the race wasn’t the biggest upset of the evening.

The sheer number of candidates made this race largely unpredictable, though a good number of people perceived Maxime Bernier to be the frontrunner, followed closely by Mr. Scheer and Erin O’Toole.

The result comes after a 15-month long leadership race that saw a total of 16 candidates enter. In the end, a whopping 13 made it to the finish line.

One of the reasons the race was so unpredictable was because with so many candidates, no one was likely to win on the first ballot. The winner needed to reach 50 per cent plus one of the vote, meaning they needed to accumulate 50 per cent of the points, plus one.

The first ballot results did little to increase predictability. In fact, it was a guessing game right up until the 13th ballot.

Conservative MP Deepak Obhrai (Calgary Forest Lawn, Alta.) was dropped first, after he came in last on the first ballot, as his campaign predicted he would. But the candidates at the top of the pack were far too close to call; Mr. Bernier finished first with 28.89 per cent of the points, meaning he needed more than twenty more in order to win.

Candidates dropped off one by one. As social conservatives Mr. Lemieux and finally Mr. Trost dropped off, the gap between Mr. Scheer and Mr. Bernier tightened.

Perhaps the loudest reaction of the night—much of it a mixture of shock and dismay—came in response to the ninth round ballot results, which saw Mr. Scheer’s point-count make a significant jump after Mr. Lemieux dropped off (by roughly 2,000 points), closing the gap on Mr. Bernier.

By this time, most people in the room were standing, talking, and many were leaving in between ballots to get a beer or glass of wine. More than one person was overheard raising doubts about long-presumed frontrunner Maxime Bernier’s chances after the first ballot results were announced. Former federal Canadian Alliance leader Stockwell Day told The Hill Times he thought many anticipated Mr. Bernier would have garnered higher support on the first round.

By the 12th ballot, there was little more than a 700-point difference between Mr. Bernier and Mr. Scheer.

In the end, Mr. O’Toole was king-maker. The third-place candidate dropped off on the 13th ballot, and the majority of his supporters went to Mr. Scheer, pushing him to victory. Mr. Scheer won with just under 51 per cent of the vote. 

Mr. Scheer kicked off his leader’s speech by joking the race made a 78-day campaign feel like a walk in the park (referencing the 2015 federal election), and was quick to thank his wife, then his five kids—listing them off and quipping “that’s it, so far”—and finally his campaign workers. He noted the sacrifice made by all candidates on the campaign trail, asking for a round of applause for Mr. Bernier, and said “we have grown because of your hard work.” Mr. Scheer said he planned to ensure the “very best” of the ideas from the campaign trail were brought forward to help the party win in 2019.

“I know that I have very big shoes to fill Rona, well not physically very big, but stylish,” Mr. Scheer quipped in reference to diminutive departing interim party leader Rona Ambrose (Sturgeon River-Parkland, Alta.) He also thanked former prime minister and party leader Stephen Harper, to much applause, and recognized him as the first leader of a “united” and “dynamic” Conservative Party.

Mr. Scheer’s mother died during the campaign in March. During his acceptance speech, he thanked his family, including his father, aunts, uncles, and cousins, for being with him in the room.

After stressing his keystone policy proposals, including cutting off federal grants to universities that limit free speech, Mr. Scheer stressed the need for a united party going forward.

“There is hope because Conservatives are united, because we are positive, because we are strong, because we have principled conservative values,” he said, wrapping up his speech.

Saskatchewan Senator Denise Batters said she was “thrilled” with the result. A Scheer supporter, Ms. Batters said the result was “very exciting.”

Andrew Scheer, former speaker of the House from 2011-2015, stressed party unity in his acceptance speech. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright

“We fought so hard,” she said, adding she was feeling nostalgic for her home province, and that “people are loving it there.”

MP Matt Jeneroux (Edmonton Riverbend, Alta.), also a Scheer supporter, said he “wouldn’t have been able to predict” the outcome, but that now, he too is “thrilled.”

“It added a lot of stress and anxiety to the day,” he said, referring to the drawn-out countdown as the voting went 13 rounds.

He said he is most looking forward to Mr. Scheer bringing some “humour to Question Period.”

“He’s always good for a good laugh,” he said.

Mr. Jeneroux said he didn’t think the party would have any trouble uniting behind Mr. Scheer. He referred to what looked like the entire Conservative caucus joining Mr. Scheer on stage after his first speech as leader.

“At the end of the day, Andrew is going to keep our caucus strong and united, and that’s going to be really important for the party,” Mr. Jeneroux said. Mr. Scheer had the second highest number of caucus endorsements, following Mr. O’Toole.

Former Conservative staffer Matthew Conway, who worked on Mr. O’Toole’s leadership campaign, said party members “have to rally behind the winner,” and said he hopes Mr. Scheer’s team will realize that they didn’t get a “wide mandate,” with 51 per cent of the vote.

“There’s always going to be a hangover,” said Mr. Conway, when asked about the threat of division after such a close race filled with a diverse range of policy views. He said Mr. Scheer and his team need to extend a hand to “everybody else to say, ‘let’s work together.’”

Former Conservative MP Joe Preston, a member of the party’s national council, said he doesn’t think anyone was expecting the race to come all the way down to a 13th ballot. While he declined to reveal who he voted for, he noted that Mr. Scheer is “a good friend—I’ll leave it at that.” Mr. Preston said he knows Mr. Scheer to be someone to extend the proverbial olive branch.

“I got to speak to a few of the candidates as they came off ballot … I said, ‘I’ll need your help,’ and they said, ‘we’re all there for the party,’” recounted Mr. Preston.

Mr. Preston said he thinks Mr. Scheer’s experience in  the speaker’s chair will prove an asset in his new role.

“It certainly teaches you how to be diplomatic, how to get along when you can, but then be firm in your decisions,” he said. “Can you describe leadership better than that? Listen to all, take in everybody’s ideas, and then make the decision and stick with. Andrew can do it.”

Noting the excitement in the room through the evening, Mr. Preston questioned whether the party could “be better off than this.”

“The number of new members, the money we have in the bank, two years to plan the next election against a terrible leader on the other side—I don’t know if it can get any better than this,” he said.

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