OTTAWA — The federal Conservative party elects a new leader tonight and whomever wins faces two major challenges right out of the gate.
One: the party is the Official Opposition in the House of Commons, and in exactly a month’s time, the minority Liberal government will deliver a throne speech laying out a post-pandemic recovery plan. The vote on the speech is a confidence motion and the Liberals have all but dared the Tories to try and bring them down.
Two: the new leader will have to unite the party after a fractious leadership contest also dramatically impacted by the pandemic itself.
“The race was as chippy as I’ve seen in all my years of politics,” said Jenni Byrne, a longtime Conservative who has run past federal election campaigns.
“Party unity is job one.”
Four candidates are vying for the job, only the third time in its history the party has chosen a new leader.
Leslyn Lewis, Peter MacKay, Erin O’Toole and Derek Sloan each sought over the course of the campaign to position themselves as the party’s best hope going forward, not just to defeat Prime Minister Justin Trudeau but to refresh the Conservative brand in Canada.
In their respective thank-you messages to supporters posted over the weekend, all said they believe a bright future for the party lies ahead.
“I will come out of this contest proud of our party, hopeful for the future, and confident that conservative values, ideals, principles and beliefs are a force for positive constructive change in our country,” MacKay said in a video on social media.
Should MacKay win, he’ll face a third challenge: he doesn’t have a seat in the Commons, and will need to appoint a leader there whose job it will be to respond to the throne speech.
O’Toole, a current MP whose campaign took pointed attacks at MacKay even in the final days, said no matter who wins, they will have his support.
“We are a family. And this leadership was just a very long Thanksgiving dinner,” he wrote in an email to supporters Friday night.
“On Sunday night, we unite. On Sunday night, four teams become one. The Liberals won’t stand a chance.”
Lewis, the Toronto lawyer and relative political neophyte, ended her campaign with nearly $2 million in donations. Considering many told her she’d never even make the $300,000 entry fee, the donations send a message, she said.
“We have shocked the pundits, many in our own party, and Canadians right across the country who had forgotten what happens when you give the grassroots a real voice,” she said.
The fundraising totals — MacKay at over $3 million, O’Toole over $2 million as well and Sloan at around $900,000 — came even as the candidates campaigned during a period of mass upheaval in the country.
The COVID-19 pandemic forced the delay of the race itself; the vote was originally scheduled for June but punted as efforts to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus shut down the country.
While for a time, the candidates themselves were asked not to actively campaign, they were let loose again on the party membership in the spring, but forced into an entirely new way of campaigning.
Rather than hundreds of in-person meet-and-greets with party members, the campaigns for a time went entirely virtual. Rubber chicken dinners were replaced with Zoom calls, pancake breakfasts with tele-townhalls.
The challenges mounted by the pandemic were significant but also opened the door to what was potentially a better way, suggested Lisa Raitt, a former Conservative cabinet minister who ran for leadership in 2017.
“I keep asking myself, as a candidate, would I have preferred to do it this way?”
“It used to be, if the candidates didn’t go out, you couldn’t raise the money. Now, people could just tune in at their leisure and it made it a lot easier to fundraise and get the message out.”
The winner will be announced tonight in a hybrid in-person and virtual event that will feature a tribute to outgoing leader Andrew Scheer, as well as a province-by-province reveal of the results featuring well-known Tories.
Around 270,000 party members were eligible to vote in the race, and according to a count released by the party on Saturday, about 175,000 did.
The party uses a ranked ballot, meaning members rank candidates in order of preference. It’s not one-member, one-vote, but a system in which all 338 ridings are allocated 100 points. The winner must get the majority of points.