The race is officially on. As of Friday afternoon, at least six candidates had filed their signatures and big bucks to appear on the final ballot in hopes of becoming the next leader of the Conservative Party of Canada.
Prepare to see a shift in strategies as candidates gear up for the upcoming debates in May. They will have to decide who they want on their side and who they want to attack. And how do some intend to get noticed in a more crowded race than anticipated?
The National Post’s Catherine Lévesque spoke to 10 current and former strategists, some neutral, some working for candidates, to get a feel of the strategy on the ground and the challenges that lay ahead.
PIERRE POILIEVRE, THE FRONTRUNNER
There is no question that Ontario MP Pierre Poilievre is sucking all of the oxygen from the room for his leadership opponents.
Not only is he attracting huge crowds in areas that traditionally do not vote Conservative, but his attacks against the elites and the “gatekeepers” are hitting home. He makes no excuses about going after his opponents with sometimes vicious attack ads that have Tories wondering what this party will look like if he wins the leadership race.
“No matter what’s been thrown out of the press or by his opponents in this race, the crowds aren’t stopping. And I think that’s probably the most impressive part. I think he’s unquestionably the frontrunner at this point,” said Chris Chapin, a veteran of Conservative leadership races and managing principal of the Upstream Strategy Group communications firm in Toronto.
People are driving anywhere from half an hour to a couple of hours away to come see Poilievre speak and get a chance to take a picture or chat with him, according to sources. And the numbers don’t lie: he managed to gather more than 1,000 people in the Liberal stronghold of Toronto, 1,200 in Windsor, 450 in Timmins.
“The Conservative Party has not seen crowds like that ever in my history of being part of the conservative movement,” said Jenni Byrne, senior advisor to the Poilievre campaign.
Poilievre has been preparing for a long time. He is a notorious door knocker and would routinely inform the party of issues that would arise well ahead of time. He has been collecting data with his petitions and therefore constituting lists of supporters. And his social media game was already strong even before Jeff Ballingall, founder of Canada Proud, joined the team.
Even though his policies have been criticized for being too simplistic or dangerous by opponents, his pitch is appealing to Canadians who feel like they’ve been left behind with the cost of everything going up and now higher interest rates.
“He’s done an extraordinary job in tapping into that kind of populist sentiment where the elites in the country are causing the problems and keeping the little man under their foot. And that includes bringing to light some complex, but very important issues to regular Canadians on things like affordability, inflation, housing,” said Michael Solberg, former Conservative staffer.
Byrne said that, with the focus on the Ontario election in the coming weeks, the Poilievre campaign might look a bit different as it will be traveling to different areas where the population is smaller and the current membership is too.
With many months still to go until the vote, the challenge for Poilievre will be to keep that momentum going and not end up losing like the frontrunners in the past two leadership races: Maxime Bernier and Peter MacKay.
JEAN CHAREST, POLICY FOCUSED
Former Quebec premier Jean Charest entered the race claiming he can “make this party win” but the reality has been proving a bit more challenging. Having been out of politics for nearly a decade, he’s had to quickly adapt to the realities of being a politician in 2022.
But some things don’t change. A genuine connection, a good handshake: Charest hasn’t been attracting crowds, but he takes the time to meet and talk to each and every person at his events. He has a fantastic memory for names and facts about people, which can be disarming at times.
Melanie Paradis went to her local Boston Pizza with her baby to meet Charest for the first time out of curiosity and when he went to her, he asked: “Where’s my money?” She was stunned.
Paradis, who used to be a close advisor to former leader Erin O’Toole but is now on maternity leave, had been on social media and in the press to denounce the fake donation pledge of $120 that had been made under her name. It is believed that a “troll” used an old Conservative membership data list to make the Charest campaign waste its time.
Charest, of course, was joking about the money. Paradis was still a bit stunned. “He had never met me before, but he had seen me on TV and had remembered it. That completely caught me off guard,” she told the National Post.
Charest is trying to put as much content or policy as possible to generate news
In the public eye, Charest is leading a more “media savvy campaign” to relay his messages, “because he doesn’t have the infrastructure to very quickly and very effectively convey his message to members compared to Pierre Poilievre,” said Rudy Husny, a former Conservative leadership candidate in 2020 and former Conservative staffer.
In the past few days, he has given exclusive interviews to mainstream media to lay out his policies for the health sector, the environment and the natural resources sector.
“Jean Charest is trying to put as much content or policy as possible to generate news. But also, I think that he’s doing it to prepare himself for the debates so that he’s able to actually highlight policies that he already announced,” added Husny.
That is the goal, confirmed Charest national co-chair Tasha Kheiriddin in an interview.
“We wanted to go into the debates with something to say. We don’t believe that debates should be just an occasion to clash with or criticize your opponent. We should have something to bring to the table, which is why we’ve been working very hard to do that,” she said.
Kheiriddin said that every time the Charest team puts out new policy ideas and attracts attention from the media, membership sales increase.
“So our strategy has become very policy-focused, which as somebody who believes in policy, I greatly appreciate. And I think it’s also something our membership would appreciate because it really allows you to know what kind of leader Jean would be.”
PATRICK BROWN, UNDER THE RADAR
The Brampton Mayor has a reputation of being one of the strongest mobilizers in the conservative coalition, and he’s staying true to his word according to his team.
Patrick Brown starts his morning very early and works until the wee hours, depending on the different community events he is set to do around the country. His posts on social media show him meeting in small groups with mostly cultural communities and religious groups, and he has visited certain cities two or three times already in the leadership race.
“Right now, Mayor Brown is working incredibly hard trying to meet as many new people as possible to grow our party, particularly in communities and regions where we need to win the next election. He is an absolute workhorse. He’s doing 20, 30 events a day,” said Fred DeLorey, his campaign chair, to National Post.
Brown has shied away from mainstream media, but has given more than a hundred interviews to ethnic media, according to DeLorey. And the message he is pushing is fighting against Quebec’s law on religious signs, as well as the 2015 Conservative promises of banning the niqab in citizenship ceremonies and the “barbaric cultural practices” tip line.
Brown is also greatly benefiting from having Alberta veteran MP Michelle Rempel Garner by his side, as she can open many new doors for him in Western Canada.
“What Patrick had going into this was a massive organization in Ontario and a network across the country, but not a lot of a presence in Western Canada. What do you have with Michelle is someone who is at least his equal in terms of organizational capacity in Western Canada, if not his superior frankly,” said Melanie Paradis, a veteran of the two past leadership races.
“So they’re actually an incredibly powerful duo in terms of their organization. And they’re also incredibly focused and very hardworking, relentlessly hardworking people,” added Paradis, who served as deputy campaign director under former leader Erin O’Toole and is staying neutral in this current leadership race.
Chris Chapin, a longtime Conservative who held senior roles at Queen’s Park, said Brown is using similar strategies compared to when he surprised everyone by becoming leader of the Ontario Progressive Conservatives in 2015 by appealing to cultural communities.
But his “flip flopping” on the carbon tax, for instance, could prove to be a challenge for some pockets of the Conservative members, he said.
“Those voters aren’t going to vote for them. You know, they were “betrayed” by him when he was an Ontario PC leader, so they’re not going to believe anything he says. That really limits the voter pool for him of the existing membership,” said Chapin, now a managing principal of Upstream Strategy Group communications firm in Toronto.
LESLYN LEWIS, SECOND ACT
Ontario MP Leslyn Lewis is now into her second leadership race, and she is once again the darling of the social conservative wing of the party is sparing no effort to try to get her to win.
Lewis caused a surprise by being the first candidate to raise the $200,000 in entry fees and $100,000 compliance deposit required by the party to be on the ballot in early April. And she is making her rounds in different parts of the country, attracting quite large crowds and engaging with members with question and answer sessions.
“It’s interesting because while she’s not getting obviously the same amount of crowds that Pierre Poilievre is, she’s certainly getting a lot larger crowds and more consistently and in different areas compared to other candidates,” noted Scott Hayward, Conservative strategist and co-founder of the pro-life organization RightNow in an interview.
The Campaign Life Coalition has also been pushing to get more social conservatives on the final ballot, encouraging their members to donate to specific candidates before Friday’s deadline. The CLC mentioned Saskatchewan businessman Joseph Bourgault as also raising enough money to make the cut, but he was not listed as an official candidate as of deadline.
She’s certainly getting a lot larger crowds and more consistently … compared to other candidates
Hayward said RightNow has also been encouraging its 30,000 members to purchase the party membership and encourage pro-life candidates, as well as using networks in specific ridings across the country to contact their own personal pro-life networks. “So hopefully, we’re able to have a bit of a multiplier effect,” he said.
Lewis made impressive scores in 2020 and almost made it to the final ballot, but insiders say that the competition was less fierce then. It remains to be seen whether or not she will be able to perform as well, especially in Saskatchewan, with Poilievre in the race this time.
“I think it will be more challenging,” said Michael Solberg, a former Conservative staffer and now partner at New West Public Affairs. “I think a lot of those (social conservative) supporters are also flocking in large numbers to Pierre Poilievre.”
But Paradis believes that Lewis’ team has learned some valuable lessons from their first leadership race and is now better prepared to face the competition. That is why Lewis has been perfecting her speaking skills and has been taking French lessons to help her better connect with francophones in the party.
Steve Outhouse, campaign manager for Lewis, told the National Post that the last campaign was a “steady diet of Zoom meetings” because of the state of the pandemic and that this new race is a totally different ball game now that the candidate can travel across the country.
“It’s creating opportunities for members to meet her in person for the first time, and for her supporters to invite friends and family members out to hear her message of hope, unity and compassion,” he said.
SCOTT AITCHISON, THE CONSENSUS BUILDER
Ontario MP Scott Aitchison labeled himself as the unity candidate in this divisive and sometimes muddy race, while also distinguishing himself on key issues.
He has recently come out as the only candidate, until now, wanting to phase out supply management in agriculture. He has also put out a plan to incentivize more housing, touting his experience as former mayor of Huntsville, Ont., and has come out against Quebec’s Bill 21.
“Scott sees an opportunity to bring a consensus building approach that leads with respect, but that doesn’t mean a uniformity in views. There are going to be disagreements, but you can disagree without being disagreeable,” explained campaign manager Jamie Ellerton.
Paradis said that Aitchison’s profile is very appealing to the Conservative membership and should therefore not be discounted — even though he’s not always the one making the headlines in the news.
“People liked Andrew Scheer because he was a nice guy. He was Stephen Harper with a smile, right? That was enough for a lot of members. Erin O’Toole was a nice guy who had great life experience, served in the military, was a lawyer, and thoughtful about policy,” said Paradis.
“Scott is a very thoughtful, level-headed guy. He has a lot of experience outside of politics. (…) He lives in a small town and he is a salt of the earth kind of person. That is very attractive to our membership.”
ROMAN BABER, THE WILD CARD
Roman Baber is no friend of Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s, having been ejected from his caucus, but he certainly has friends in a lot of other places. Earlier this week, he was introduced by co-founder of the modern Conservative Party Peter MacKay when in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
MacKay presented him as a “friend” and joked about Baber’s passion for the Raptors. He also spoke of the importance of freedom and democracy, two main components of Baber’s pitch to the federal Conservative membership.
“Roman is somebody who understands the organization game in Canadian politics that is going out and helping and volunteering and helping candidates in leadership races. So when he was an MPP in Ontario, he helped Peter Mackay during the leadership race, and you know, he’s cashing in that chip now,” said Chapin.
“That’s the smart, organizational side that will help him become more and more influential in this race even though I don’t think he’s got a shot at winning this thing.”
Baber has been a strong critic of lockdowns and other COVID-19 restrictions, even though he is himself fully vaccinated. He has also defended the trucker convoy, calling it a “peaceful, freedom loving movement”. He continues to say that “millions of Canadians are still subjected to unprecedented discrimination” because of federal mandates.
His stance on COVID-19 restrictions could prove to be useful to get noticed during the debates, but it could also play into specific segments of voters who feel compelled by his message.
“He’ll say things that will wedge the other candidates like whenever you have a wildcard, right? That’s true for any of these candidates that are not selected for the frontrunner,” said Paradis.
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