OTTAWA — There is money in the bank. Voters in the hopper. And from many angles, a spring in the step of many Conservatives these days.
One year of Andrew Scheer, observers say, has not exactly been flashy but he has done the Conservative Party some good.
“He’s been steady,” says Tim Powers, a conservative strategist and vice-chairman of Ottawa-based firm Summa Strategies. “You’d probably give him a solid B or B plus.”
Carl Vallee, a former press secretary for the government of Stephen Harper, and now a partner in Montreal strategy firm Hatley, calls Scheer “very, very constant.”
Scheer, the 39-year-old, dimple-cheeked father of five, has spent a year fashioning himself as the everyman to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s jet-setting millionaire ways. His advertising plays up the fact that while Trudeau grew up with a silver spoon or two, Scheer was raised in suburban Ottawa by middle-class parents who didn’t even own a car.
Since Scheer took over as leader the Conservative fundraising machine is back in full tilt. The last two quarters were the best the party has had since the 2015 election, and the Conservatives are clearly outpacing the Liberals on the money front — by almost two dollars to one in the first three months of 2018.
The polls, while volatile and often hard to parse this far away from an actual vote, have still been favourable of late for the Conservatives, showing them tied with or in spitting distance of the Liberals. If nothing else, the polls serve as a shot of morale in the arm of the Tory caucus and help in the recruitment of candidates.
“There’s certainly no mass panic at the moment,” said Powers.
As a former speaker, Scheer is one of the most recognizable faces within the Ottawa bubble but outside of it, he’s probably not the first name many people think of when asked to name a Tory politician. Vallee says in Quebec, Maxime Bernier is likely still the most well known. In Ontario and Alberta, provincial Tory leaders Doug Ford and Jason Kenney are eating up more air time.
Powers said it’s not horrible if Ford or Kenney are getting more attention currently because they have elections to win before Scheer does. He says the big question mark for Scheer will come in August, when the Conservatives host their first policy convention since he took over as leader. It will also be about the one-year mark from the next election and Scheer has to use it to start to define himself and his version of conservatism.
Duane Bratt, a politics professor at Mount Royal University in Calgary, said Scheer’s biggest problem may be that “he is still not well known.”
He says any polls favouring the Conservatives have more to do with people being annoyed with Trudeau than with Scheer. And while Scheer has criticized many Liberal policies there have been few alternatives put forward, including how he’d handle the Trans Mountain pipeline or address climate change without a carbon price.
Powers notes that Scheer has easily had a better year than either Trudeau or new NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, but it hasn’t been a year devoid of fires entirely.
The appearance or reality of ongoing discord between Scheer Conservatives and those who supported Bernier — Scheer barely beat him on the final ballot of the leadership — continues to float beneath the surface like the lava of a Hawaiian volcano, threatening to burst through at any moment.
Bernier himself caused an eruption when he published a teaser chapter from a coming book that said Scheer had won the leadership only thanks to the support of “fake Conservatives” in Quebec. They were people from the powerful dairy lobby, said Bernier, who joined the party only to vote against Bernier and his policy opposing supply management, which regulates production and pricing of milk, eggs and chicken.
After a raucous caucus meeting, Bernier suddenly announced he would put off publication of the entire book — initially scheduled for this fall — in order to fully back Scheer as party leader.
“They both have found a way to work together,” said Vallee.
Brad Trost, the Saskatchewan social conservative MP whose surprise fourth-place finish in the leadership gave him some initial clout to push the party’s position, has mostly been sidelined after losing the nomination to run again in his riding. However, his ongoing lawsuit against the party over accusations he gave out the party’s membership list inappropriately is a simmering issue, and the social Conservatives who backed Trost and then shifted to Scheer may be a little restless in Trost’s absence.
The biggest push Scheer has made of late is in Quebec. The second most populous province has not been an easy road for the Tories since Brian Mulroney was prime minister but Vallee says the collapse of support in Quebec for the NDP and the disintegrating Bloc Quebecois are opening the door to a two-horse federal race in 2019: Trudeau or Scheer.
Scheer has launched what he calls a “listening tour” in Quebec this spring, complete with a website listeningtoquebecers.ca, and he travelled to the province multiple times in May.
Vallee said there is a natural home for nationalist Quebecers in the Conservative Party of Canada, because many of their values are similar, particularly when it comes to fears about preserving language, heritage and history.
Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press