Today’s Conservative Party of Canada is not your grandmother’s Conservative Party. That much we know.
But what kind of party will it be going forward? The answer will be determined in large measure by the outcome of the current leadership race. Candidates have one month left to sell party memberships in this one-member, one-vote competition, followed by two more months of campaigning before the votes are counted on May 27.
Who among the mob of candidates (there are 14 of them at present) will emerge as leader in May?
I will hazard an answer to that question, but first some context.
The rules for this leadership campaign are unusual in two ways. First, it is not one big national contest, but rather 338 little competitions. The Conservative association in each of the 338 constituencies represented in the Commons gets 100 points, for a total of 33,800 points nationally. So it will take 16,901 points to win.
Points will be allocated on the basis of the percentage of the votes won in each association. It doesn’t matter whether the association has 30 members (as in some constituencies in Quebec) or 3,000 members. For example, a candidate who is supported by 24 of 30 members (80 per cent) in a small association would get 80 points toward the leadership. A candidate would have to win the support of 2,400 members in a 3,000-member association to get 80 points.
That’s one complication. The second is that voting will be by preferential ballot. Conservative members will rank the candidates in order of preference. If, as seems likely, no candidate reaches 16,901 points, in the first round, the lowest candidate will be dropped and their second preference votes will be distributed among the others. This will process will continue until someone has 16,901 points.
It means that the candidate who is on top in the first round could well lose to a candidate who is the second or third choice of more members.
So who is going to win?
I’m excluding Kellie Leitch (too polarizing) and, sadly, Michael Chong (too progressive).
My sense is that three candidates will be left standing toward the end. They will be Kevin O’Leary, the celebrity outsider; Maxime Bernier, the former Harper minister and the hope of Quebec Conservatives; and Andrew Scheer, from Saskatchewan, the former speaker of the Commons.
O’Leary’s people claim he has momentum, and that is probably true. He attracts large crowds to his appearances. He is using his reality-TV fame to raise lots of money and sell memberships on the internet. He is counting on his social media presence to compensate for his lack of roots in the party.
His problem is, Conservatives either love him or hate him. If he doesn’t win on the first round, he may not have enough subsequent-ballot support to get him to 16,901.
Maxime Bernier is raising large sums from right-wing Conservatives who, like him, believe in less government, lower taxes and no unions. As a Quebecker, he is being supported by elements of Brian Mulroney’s old political machine (and perhaps tacitly by Mulroney himself). But Bernier is too far to the right for the taste of most Conservatives.
Andrew Scheer is said by some well-placed Conservatives to be Stephen Harper’s candidate of choice. Harper loyalist Guy Giorno may not be Scheer’s official campaign manager, but insiders believe he is calling the shots. Functionally bilingual (like Harper), Scheer has collected an impressive list of endorsements among present and former MPs and MLAs, mainly in the west.
He probably has the strongest grassroots organization of any candidate, drawing supporters from, among others, the religious right. A Roman Catholic, Scheer has ties to communities of born-again Christians, who turn out for meetings and sell memberships. He has positioned himself to the centre-right in party. Generally well regarded by other Conservatives, he will be a popular second choice on the preferential ballot.
If I were betting, three months before decision day, I would bet on Andrew Scheer. But I recall being wrong before.
Bernier could be his Quebec lieutenant with an IOU for a senior cabinet post in a future Scheer government. And Kevin O’Leary? Unencumbered by a Commons seat, he could go home to Boston.