Peter Seemann is a Senior Consultant and Principal of Grassroots Public Affairs and is based in Toronto. Peter can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
It was ironically fitting that after an unprecedentedly long, and disrupted leadership race due to COVID-19, the Conservative Party of Canada (CPC) announced their new leader after more than a 6-hour delay due to technical problems counting ballots. Erin O’Toole won the leadership on the 3rd ballot, defeating front runner Peter MacKay by a healthy margin. Third place finisher Leslyn Lewis ran a very solid campaign and raised her profile significantly. Everyone expects Ms. Lewis has an opportunity to play a leading role in the party moving forward, providing she wins a seat in the next election. Fourth place finisher Derek Sloan trailed the others with 14% support on the first ballot but still did better than many expected.
About Erin O’Toole
While not a household name to those outside conservative political circles, Erin O’Toole is no stranger to politics. Elected in a by-election in 2012, O’Toole served as a minister for various portfolios in the Harper government and placed third in the 2017 leadership race behind Andrew Scheer and Maxime Bernier. O’Toole’s father, John O’Toole, was a member of the provincial legislature in Ontario for 20 years and primarily responsible for inspiring his son to enter public office. Prior to politics, O’Toole had a 12-year career in the Royal Canadian Air Force and later worked as a corporate lawyer on Bay Street in Toronto. His varied life experiences and strong leadership skills will undoubtedly benefit him as he seeks to unite the party and sell its brand to Canadians. However, like any newly-elected party leader, he has some significant challenges ahead, and the work involved to unite the party across all regions will be significant.
Mr. O’Toole’s first challenge will be to unite the caucus behind him. While he earned the support of 36 of his caucus members, a greater number publicly backed other candidates: 43 supported Peter MacKay and 6 supported Leslyn Lewis. Through the endorsement of Premier Jason Kenney and the absence of any rival candidate from western Canada, O’Toole’s support in caucus was disproportionally from the west while his main rival Peter MacKay’s was from Ontario and Quebec. To the surprise of many O’Toole lead MacKay in Quebec after the first ballot, however membership numbers in Quebec’s 78 ridings were tiny compared to Ontario and the west. That doesn’t matter in Conservative leadership races, where every riding across the country is weighted equally. After Mr. O’Toole unites his party in Ottawa, he and his team will begin the even greater challenge of selling the Conservative Party brand to Canadians that are tired of Trudeau. There will be little time to celebrate as Mr. O’Toole’s team transitions in the office of the Leader of the Opposition. New staff will need to be hired and the party must quickly organize for an election that could be triggered in the coming months.
Liberal strategists will likely be dusting off the same playbook they used after the last Conservative leadership race to remind Canadians of the significant social conservative presence in the party. The Conservative Party of Canada is a very large tent with many different groups who, in some circumstances, have opposing views, so uniting them won’t be easy. Had Peter MacKay won with the backing of more centrist Conservatives from Eastern Canada, he would have had an equally challenging time uniting those Conservative members from Western Canada and rural areas. Somehow, former Prime Minister Stephen Harper found a way to keep the party united and focused on its primary opponent – the Liberals. Now, it’s up to Erin O’Toole to do the same. Unlike his opponents, Mr. O’Toole is already an MP, so his transition to leader will be smoother than if he didn’t have a seat in parliament. Given his work ethic and determination to win, I suspect he and his team are already hard at it.