Last night we saw a leadership campaign unlike any other in Canadian history come to an end and in a sense, the ending was somewhat fitting for 2020. Thanks to COVID-19 the campaign to replace Andrew Scheer was not only delayed by a couple of months, it had to move completely virtual with mail-in ballots. So it’s somewhat fitting that not only that the results were delayed until after 1 am EST this morning, that it was a goofy error with a hungry envelope opening machine that created it. 2020 remains undefeated, I swear.
While the delays last night were unfortunate, looked embarrassing and lead to some impressive improvisation by many television hosts and journalists out there, it wasn’t the end of the world. It will all make for a funny story at some later date but honestly it was a small screw up that lead to a much bigger problem which didn’t get much worse. Nothing nefarious, just dumb luck (or lack thereof). As for the results last night, they eventually came and brought some results that would have surprised many way back when this whole race started:
Erin O’Toole’s win was notable but not shocking in the grand scheme of things. It was clear in the early days that it was going to be a MacKay/Not MacKay race and whoever was able to get the anti-MacKay forces to coalesce around them in great enough numbers would stand a great chance of winning the whole thing. But when so few people got into the race, O’Toole appeared that he was going to win the crown of being the “anti-MacKay” candidate by default. In the end, that’s what appeared to put him over the top more than anything else, but it wasn’t without doubts along the way.
O’Toole’s win was as much about his teams’ good work as it was about MacKay’s team dropping the ball time and again. Given his long history in elected politics, including his time as the last leader of the old Progressive Conservatives, it would have been reasonable to expect a certain level of organizational acumen and ability. Yet as the stories of Twitter goof-ups and organizations mistakes piled up in the pre-COVID days, it raised serious questions about if Team MacKay had the basics covered or the ability to run such a campaign and win. When you see the end results, you can see the answer was clearly that they didn’t. It was their race to lose, and they lost it.
The other stunning part of yesterdays results was the rise of Leslyn Lewis, from absolute obscurity to the story of this race. With the early backing of prominent social conservatives like Dr. Charles McVety, her team raised crazy amounts of money for a candidate with no profile and who had never won even a seat in the House of Commons. She also constantly had more donors than MacKay did, an omen that proved to be prescient in the end. But all of those data points come a distant second place to this one, which blew my mind when I saw it this morning:
Folks, Lewis had the most votes after two ballots, more than both O’Toole and MacKay. But thanks to the points system the Conservatives had in place in this race, she ended up third and off the final ballot. And she didn’t just have more votes, she had close to 4,000 more than O’Toole did and over 6,000 more than MacKay did. That’s as impressive a feat as it was disturbing. Lewis won in Saskatchewan and finished strongly in Alberta. In the Conservative heartland, she ate MacKay’s lunch but also put a dent into O’Toole as well, who had Jason Kenney’s machine behind him. That’s not nothing folks, that’s something big that says bad things about both of the perceived front runners. It’s always a bad sign for the front runners when another candidate rises like this, as it shows that voters weren’t happy with either of them.
Which brings us back to the winner in O’Toole. While he won this race by a bigger margin than his predecessor won in 2017, it was still a win that was dependent on social Conservatives putting him over the top. In the end, they again were the kingmakers in a close race, giving that big segment of their membership power. You could argue that they have more power now than they did after 2017, mostly because in a race that created a recording membership sign-up total and voter turnout, it appears that it was the social Conservatives that made that happen. Between Lewis and Sloan, the two candidates that social Conservatives and groups like Campaign Life were actively working on the behalf of, made up over 35% of the final votes cast. That’s more than a small, passing group of insignificant voters; that’s a powerful voting block that no party could ignore, let alone this one.
That puts O’Toole in a dangerous position for his own party and his own leadership, which will make his first decisions as leader very interesting to watch. Pre-leadership campaign O’Toole was known for being a true progressive Conservative in the traditional sense of the word. Like MacKay, he came from old PC roots and his dad was a noted PC politician in Ontario. He was pro choice and not known for social conservative bents at all.
Yet in this race O’Toole tried to re-fashion himself as the “True Blue Conservative”, which this team tried to paint as social conservative friendly with a Trumpian “Take Canada Back” bent. He didn’t just go the full Post Millennial in his rhetoric, he brought their founder onto his team to help run his social media. That helped him to win the support of the likes of Jason Kenney and in the end, O’Toole owes Premier Kenney a great deal for giving him the legitimacy to be in a position to be the anti-MacKay alternative.
This is all to say the first weeks of O’Toole’s leadership will be noteworthy because we’ll start to see which Erin O’Toole Canadians will get. Will it be the pre-leadership O’Toole, who was more moderate, progressive and someone who could really make the Liberals quake in worry? Or will it be the new, True Blue O’Toole, who spent an entire campaign spouting over the top blindly partisan, angry bromides that were exactly the same kind of thing that got Andrew Scheer rejected by Canadians? Will Canadians see a Conservative leader that will actually try to grow their tent, or will they get a doubled-down, angrier version of the Conservative leader they just rejected?
Personally, I think that having gone so hard in a new direction to win this leadership, it will be too hard for O’Toole to go back while keeping the coalition that elected him together. But that will be the thing to watch. The other thing to watch in the next few weeks will be the tone of O’Toole’s team and those who will likely be coming into his inner circle in Ottawa. As someone who has been involved in three leadership campaigns, one thing I learned early on is that the day after the vote, if you win you’re going to need the people you just beat to win the bigger goal of government. Because of that, you do your best not to piss them all off, gloat or rub things in their faces. Last night I was really taken aback by the tone and language from some of O’Toole’s team in that sense. His campaign manager was on every TV network last night hours before the result boasting that they had won in a real triumphant and arrogant tone. Then this morning I couldn’t help but notice these tweets that just added to that:
Folks, that’s the sight of a campaign that doesn’t give an eff, that’s dancing on the corpses of their defeated enemies and isn’t worried about party unity. Those are actions and words that sticks in the minds and craws of those people they will need going forward. They didn’t just win, those actions and words show people that are trying to embarrass the other side, crush them into the ground as they salt it right afterwards. I can’t help but think those words and tweets will come back to bite these people someday, but I guess that we’ll see.
The Conservatives launched this race because the last election exposed a big problem they had; they couldn’t win with the baggage of social conservatives looming over them, yet they didn’t seem to be willing to cut them loose. In that election, the Conservatives showed Canadians a party that was out of step with the majority of the electorate because of how they were beholden to social conservatives who their leader owned his position to. It was clear that was a big part of the problem. Yet here we are on Monday August 24th and the Conservatives have elected a new leader, one who owes his victory to the social conservative movement again. Except this time social conservatives have flexed their muscles and are even stronger than before.
In the end, Erin O’Toole seems to have won because he wasn’t Peter MacKay (as was expected) but also won because Leslyn Lewis couldn’t quite overtake him (which wasn’t). O’Toole didn’t spark great waves of support from Canadians or even Conservatives for that matter. He was just able to outlast MacKay and hang on thanks to the advantages he did have. That became clear with the rise of Leslyn Lewis, the candidate who had the most votes after two ballots but didn’t get to be on the third. O’Toole won the race based on the rules of it, but you can’t say that he won it in the thumping triumph that the celebrations of his team might lead you to believe. A win is a win, but not all wins are equal. O’Toole is now the Leader of Her Majesty’s Official Opposition, but he’s comes into this job in no better a position than the person he is replacing. The next few weeks will tell us a lot about where he leads his party but, in this moment, it looks like O’Toole is more beholden to social conservatives than Andrew Scheer was. That puts him in a worst position than Scheer because again the old PCs have lost the battle inside the Conservative movement, further entrenching the same problem the blue team faced coming out of the last election. That likely makes Justin Trudeau’s Liberals the biggest winners of all, if they don’t screw it up, which they keep proving is far from a certainty.