With nearly 175,000 votes cast in a record-breaking leadership contest, the Conservative Party of Canada announced in the early hours of Monday morning that Erin O’Toole will be its new leader. O’Toole, who was viewed as one of the frontrunners alongside Peter MacKay, beat out MacKay on the third ballot of the evening, taking a convincing 57 per cent of the vote.
The Conservative leadership was not isolated from the effects of COVID-19. The pandemic all but eliminated the campaign-style rallies and meet-and-greets that typically characterize leadership races. As travel was limited, the bulk of the race was fought virtually over Zoom, social media, and email. Candidates delivered policy over video-recorded messages, responded to the Liberal WE controversy over Twitter, and party members were bombarded by daily emails from the candidates. It is said that O’Toole did 300 phone calls per day in the final days leading up to the vote.
While the stage was virtual, the debate was often substantive. O’Toole’s platform offered more than 20 policy planks that were both detailed – like his position on increasing defence spending – and tapped into the conservative zeitgeist – like his plan to manage the rise of China. From the outset, O’Toole sought to appeal to the right side of the Conservative Party, differentiating himself from MacKay by branding himself as the ‘True Blue’ conservative that would ‘take back Canada.’ But in reality, his legislative record and policy positions suggest he is a more progressive candidate.
Indeed, O’Toole was one of the only Conservative candidates to state he would establish a national industrial regulatory and pricing regime on carbon across the country. While this position was roundly criticized by other candidates, it allows O’Toole to deliver a serious climate action plan in the general election – addressing a significant gap in the previous conservative platform.
Beyond the nuts and bolts of establishing a new leader’s office, installing a renewed roster of critics, and selecting a slate of candidates for the next election, O’Toole’s team will be seeking to broaden his appeal beyond the conservative base.
In his acceptance speech, O’Toole began the pivot away from ‘True Blue,’ conservative to ‘Big Blue Tent,’ by extending his hand to all Canadians. “Maybe you have voted for a different party your whole life, or have never voted at all,” O’Toole said in his acceptance speech, “Maybe you feel that as a union member, you should not vote for our party…maybe you came to Canada for better, but are still waiting for fair treatment…It is time for more Canadians to look at the Conservative party again.”
Even though the Conservative leadership campaign was held during a pandemic, the race delivered record-breaking figures that point to an energized and engaged base. The party announced that more than 174,000 votes were cast, totaling more than 65 per cent of party members. Compare this to just over 100,000 votes cast in the 2013 Liberal leadership contest.
The Conservatives also lead in party fundraising, having raised $7.3 million as of June 30. This is nearly $2 million more than the Liberals and more than three times the amount of money raised by the NDP. In an email sent to supporters last week, break out Conservative star Leslyn Lewis stated that her campaign alone had raised some $2 million – just $300,000 less than the NDP’s reported fundraising in 2020.
Participation in the conservative grassroots, alongside strong fundraising numbers, means that the Conservative Party is ready to enter a federal election – a distinct possibility in a month’s time should the Trudeau government fail to secure the confidence of the House. Indeed, relative to both the Liberals, who have been dogged by ongoing controversies and the NDP, who remain indebted from the 2019 election, the CPC is poised to hit the ground running.
Is the Big Blue Tent back? The task ahead for O’Toole will be to sustain his campaign’s momentum and build a viable alternative to the Liberal Party by delivering substantive policy on issues that matter most to Canadians – something O’Toole is well-positioned to do. With poll numbers already close between the Conservative Party and Liberals going into Sunday evening, O’Toole’s early morning leadership win just might be cause for concern for the embattled Prime Minister.