With yesterdays news about Jean Charest’s decision to take a pass on the Conservative Party leadership, we got an answer to a big, outstanding question in the race to replace Andrew Scheer. When Scheer was pushed out the door, many of those leading the push called for their party to take a more progressive turn on social matters, stating that Scheer’s approach (which was the Harper approach before) simply wasn’t acceptable anymore. So when you heard those rumblings, you would have naturally expected that a candidate would come forward in such a race to represent that concern.
Many pointed to Charest as that potential candidate and really to date, no one else has stepped forward to take that position. And it should be noted that taking that lane in this race was not going to be easy; in fact, it probably would have been easier to become Prime Minister that way than it would be to actually win the Conservative leadership race first. One big part of that approach would involve signing up lots of new members, something that Charest made pretty clear the contest rules made very hard to do. So he’s out, and there doesn’t seem to be anyone who will get in who will try to take that route to victory.
So if no one is left to take that more progressive, old school Red Tory lane to try to win, that means that the race will likely revert to a race about their existing base, not growing it. That also means that the dynamics of what it will take to win this race aren’t likely to be very different from the last Conservative leadership that ended up with Andrew Scheer squeaking out a tight win, put over the top by the influence of social conservative members that backed Brad Trost, who finished fourth. We saw the same thing in the Ontario Conservative leadership race that elected Doug Ford, with the help of social conservative activist Tanya Granic Allen, who finished stronger than most expected.
Under this dynamic, the social conservative vote may not elect their first choice as leader, but they surely play the role of kingmaker. They end up making a big difference in who wins and then exert an inordinate amount of power and clout within the party itself and the direction it takes. But so far there hasn’t been a hard, pure social conservative candidate to jump into this race. That seems to have changed and it’s a development to be noted for a few good reasons:
Everyone meet Richard Décarie, former deputy chief of staff to Stephen Harper from 2003 to 2005, Hill staffer and Quebec organizer for the Conservatives. His name had been rumoured about a bit for a while, but many (myself included) didn’t give it much thought because there didn’t seem to be enough there. But when you consider that no one in the current Conservative caucus who would fit that social conservative mold hasn’t taken the plunge or doesn’t seem to be ready to do what Trost did last time, it felt likely that someone would get into this and try to carry that banner.
Décarie seems to be the one to try to do that, and what’s notable is that he doesn’t seems to be heading down this road alone. Joining his team is Russ Kuykendall, who will manage his campaign. Kuykendall managed Tanya Granic Allen’s 2018 Ontario PC leadership campaign and was deputy campaign manager for Brad Trost’s campaign too. Also getting on board is Mike Patton, who ran communications for Trost’s team in in 2017 and will be doing the same this time as well. But many the most important addition of all to Décarie’s team is none other than Brad Trost himself; he will be campaign chair, meaning he’ll be likely to take the lead on their fundraising efforts.
For an outsider candidate like Décarie, having not only the blessing but involvement of the person whose efforts you’re trying to replicate is big. It also shows that maybe social conservatives will be coalescing around this campaign, like they did last time with Trost. Will it bring the same results? It’s hard to say but I would argue there is no reason to believe it won’t. With a smaller field in this race and the debate going on about the future direction of the Conservatives, I would say there is even more reason to see that level of activation by social conservatives than the did last time.
This group is saying that the Conservatives didn’t lose because the social conservative issues were a “stinking albatross” around their neck, as front runner Peter MacKay put it. Oh no, no, no. Their view is that Scheer lost because “he didn’t defend social conservative values”, that Scheer was too “middle of the road” and that someone faithfully fighting against LGBT rights and a woman’s right to choose would have won. When you look at that on it’s face, that seriously flies in the face of reality and Canadian political history of the past 30 years at least. If that was the case, Décarie would have spent time as deputy chief of staff to a Prime Minister in 2003, not an opposition leader, but of course it wasn’t.
But folks, that’s the battle for the soul and future of the Conservative Party that was going to come anyway, the only question was who was going to represent the so-cons in that fight. It looks like the answer will be Décarie and he will come in with two advantages; a solid base of support that may not grow much but won’t go away and the fact that he is a francophone and fluently bilingual. While his social conservative views will hold him back and stop him from winning, the fact that he will speak the best French in the whole group will ensure that it’s harder to push him to the margins like the Trost’s and Granic Allen’s of the world. That likely won’t be enough to make him the next Conservative leader, but he could very easily repeat the feats accomplished by both of those other past candidates. If recent history has taught us anything, Richard Décarie could very easily become the kingmaker in this race and if that history does in fact repeat itself, it will be one of the worst outcomes possible for the Conservative Party and their future if they are truly serious about tackling the problems that ail them.