It was just earlier today that I wrote about some of the events of the past couple of days in the Conservative Leadership race. While those two stories were interesting onto themselves, they really didn’t change the narrative of what this campaign has been so far: The Peter Mackay Coronation Campaign. The fact is thanks to so many quality candidates staying out and so few getting in, for a while now it’s felt like this was MacKay’s campaign to lose. Well late today a development happened that has the potential do turn this race on its head, and it’s one that I don’t think many people saw coming:
It’s hard to underestimate how big of an endorsement that this is for Erin O’Toole and how potentially ominous this is for Peter MacKay. In Canadian Conservative politics, there is no bigger endorsement to be gotten short of Stephen Harper himself. And to be fair, given his organizing and fundraising prowess, you could make a genuine argument that Jason Kenney’s is actually bigger than the former PM. Kenney is someone whose political ambitions have been clear for all to see for the longest time. Before he decided to go back to Alberta, he was one of the biggest potential names to replace Harper and frankly, had been building the organization and network over the years to make that happen.
If Kenney had been in this race this time, he would have been a hands-down favourite to win on the first ballot but given that he just took power in Alberta last year, that ship had sailed. But being in his current role, he can play an outsized role in deciding who becomes the next Conservative leader and go a long way to giving credibility to the person he backs. Which is even more interesting to see who he decided to choose in this race. For some it may seem a bit of an odd choice, but if you want some insight into how this makes sense, we’ll Kenney didn’t leave anything to the imagination when you see this comment from this announcement today:
Wow everyone, shots fired!!! And not kind, gently ribbing shots. No that’s a statement from someone who’s got a problem with the person who dropped that fowl comment months ago. And when you think about it, it makes a lot of sense. Kenney comes from that Reform tradition, he’s been a long-time anti-abortion, anti-LGBT rights, social conservative crusader. And he’s done all of that with an antagonistic tone and his elbows up. He is the opposite of what Peter MacKay came from, the old Progressive Conservative tradition that he’s now trying to paint over to play to their base. Peter MacKay is not a Jason Kenney Conservative, that’s for sure, and when MacKay dropped that “albatross” line, it was people like Kenney he was talking about. So, you get the feeling there is a personal aspect to this.
While in retrospect it’s not a surprise he didn’t go to MacKay, it is surprising that O’Toole is the one to be anointed in this way. And honestly it looks like he ended up backing O’Toole more by default as anything else, that O’Toole was likely the only candidate in this field with a snowballs chance in Hades of maybe stopping MacKay, something that becomes more likely with Kenney’s backing. O’Toole is not a social conservative and despite his attempted Canada Proud makeover, his background is old school Ontario PC’s. There are three other candidates in this race that would fit Kenney’s social conservative views and profile much better, but they don’t stand any chance of winning at all so backing them would just be a waste. Sitting on the sidelines would equally be a waste. And given that Kenney’s apparent attempts to get people like Rona Ambrose and John Baird to run failed, he was running out of options. So by the process of elimination, that leaves O’Toole. Default, yep he basically gets his endorsement by default.
But putting aside the reasons for the endorsement, you can’t underestimate how this changes this race. Peter MacKay was heading for a first ballot win or at worst, a strong first ballot that would be insurmountable on the second. It really was becoming a coronation and it was going to take something drastic to change that. This is that. Kenney’s endorsement most likely comes with access to Kenney’s networks across the country, but surely in the Conservative heartland of Albert and Saskatchewan, along with the 905 around Toronto. That most likely also comes with fundraising help, something where Kenney has excelled. Simply put, Kenney has an organization with a proven track record of success, which is something big for O’Toole, given that he was been at a disadvantage there compared to MacKay.
The other thing that Kenney’s endorsement brings though is his “seal of approval”, the signal that it sends to the social conservative voters in the Conservative membership that we know holds sway and voting power. That cohort has made it clear that MacKay is not an option for them and would be worse than Scheer for their issues, but they had also made similar comments about O’Toole, lumping the two together. What Kenney’s endorsement could do here is help rehabilitate O’Toole in their eyes a bit, or at least enough to hold their noses and give him votes further down the ballot. If this race becomes an “Anyone but MacKay” campaign, Kenney’s willingness to back him so strongly could help put those social conservatives at ease, or at least enough at ease to get enough of them to back O’Toole.
All of that is big and changes the landscape of this race in a big way. For me though, it will be interesting to see how both MacKay and O’Toole will respond, react and change what their campaigns are doing in response to this move. It will say a lot about how they think their path to a potential victory might look and what they might be saddling themselves with when either of them becomes leader. While this news makes this a race, the biggest smiles in Ottawa at this news must be in the PMO because now this race has the potential to do a lot of damage to the Conservative Party and maybe even tear it apart again. If MacKay wins, it won’t be with the backing of the biggest names in the Conservative movement and if O’Toole wins, it will be with major IOU’s owed to the social conservative movement, the exact same situation that Andrew Scheer found himself in. That’s not a renewal for the Conservatives and is a lot of the “same old, same old” so as this race keeps going along, it seems that the biggest winner of this race may turn out to be Canada’s other parties. This announcement that’s that possibility all the greater too.