Erin O’Toole wins Conservative leadership race, reaches out to broaden blue tent

By | August 23, 2020

Erin O’Toole has won the leadership for the Conservative Party, promising to present a vision to make Canada more prosperous and reaching out to broaden the party’s base of supporters.

After a six-hour delay due to glitches with the ballots, O’Toole took 57 per cent of the votes on the third and final ballot, compared to 43 per cent for second-place contender Peter MacKay.

O’Toole claimed victory after taking support from Leslyn Lewis, who finished with a surprisingly strong performance but dropped off on the second ballot. Derek Sloan dropped off after the first ballot.

In his acceptance speech, O’Toole promised to work to unite the party, champion Conservative values, and hold Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to account.

“We must continue to point out Liberal failings and corruption, but we must also show Canadians our vision for a stronger, more prosperous and more united Canada,” he said.

“Canada can and must do better and Conservatives will work hard to earn the trust and confidence of Canadians in the next election.”

Acknowledging the party needs to broaden its base to win the next election, O’Toole reached out to all Canadians in all regions of the country and from diverse backgrounds.

“I believe that whether you are Black, white, brown or from any race or creed, whether you are LGBT or straight, whether you are an Indigenous Canadian or have joined the Canadian family three weeks ago or three generations ago,” he said.

“Whether you’re doing well or barely getting by. Whether you worship on Friday, Saturday, Sunday or not at all … you are an important part of Canada and you have a home in the Conservative Party of Canada.”

Watch | Erin O’Toole says he’ll fight for Canadian families in first speech as Conservative leader:

“To the Canadians I’m meeting for the first time. Good morning. I’m Erin O’Toole.” O’Toole delivers first speech after winning Conservative leadership. 16:41

Results delayed for hours

The results were delayed by several hours because the machine used to open ballot envelopes damaged several thousand voting cards.

The technical glitch left the four candidates vying for the party’s top job waiting in limbo throughout Sunday evening until the final result was announced shortly after 1 a.m. ET Monday.

Outgoing Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer and wife Jill Scheer make their way to the Conservative Party of Canada leadership studio in Ottawa on Sunday. The announcement of voting results for his replacement was delayed for hours. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Former Conservative deputy leader and leadership campaign co-chair Lisa Raitt said the ballots, which were mailed in a sealed envelope inside another envelope, were being opened automatically.

“What’s been happening is the machine is ripping or cutting some of these ballots,” she said.

Up to 4,000 ballots that were damaged had to be either taped back together or manually remarked on a new ballot. Scrutineers from all camps view the ballot and agree on the result, so there is no risk of the integrity being compromised, Raitt said.

Scrutineers spent all day Sunday tabulating the results. Nearly 175,000 ballots were cast in a mail-in system out of about 270,000 eligible members — the highest number of votes in the party’s history.

The envelopes were smaller than the last race, contributing to the tearing issue. The electric envelope opener is partially or totally ripping some ballots, requiring volunteers to tape the cards back before they were reviewed by scrutineers and fed into the counting machines.

Kory Teneycke, who served as director of communications for former prime minister Stephen Harper, said the technical glitches could damage the brand of a party that prides itself on managerial competence.

“It’s an embarrassing lost opportunity to get a clear, clean message out and to profile whoever the next leader is going to be,” he told the CBC’s chief political correspondent Rosemary Barton.

Party in ‘great shape’: Scheer

Earlier Sunday evening, party members honoured outgoing Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer in a video montage tribute. 

In a farewell speech, Scheer urged party members to stand united, to reach out to new supporters and to challenge “leftist” figures. He took aim at big government, mainstream media “bias” and “establishment elites.”

WATCH / Andrew Scheer delivers farewell speech:

In his final speech as leader, Scheer took shots at Justin Trudeau and the Liberals while calling on Conservatives to “stay involved, be bold, think” and to challenge the mainstream media. 13:48

“In times like these, it is even more important for every single Conservative to stay united and do everything we can to work together to spread our message of hope,” he said.

“It doesn’t matter what kind of Conservative you are. Our party needs all of you and we need you to go out and find more people who share our beliefs. Please stay involved. Be bold. Think. Challenge the mainstream media. Don’t take the left-wing media narrative as fact.”

From left: Conservative Party of Canada leadership candidates Derek Sloan, Peter MacKay, Leslyn Lewis and Erin O’Toole. (CBC)

The challenge ahead is to find new ways to connect with people and attract new supporters, he said.

“Millions of Canadians share our Conservative values, they just don’t all know it yet,” Scheer said.

David Stewart, a political science professor at the University of Calgary, said O’Toole’s victory speech suggests he understands the need to deliver a positive message and to reach out to a broader base of voters.

“The Conservatives have badly underestimated Trudeau in two elections, and have to be careful not to assume that the current controversies will dominate the next election,” he said in an email. “O’Toole has to define himself to non-Conservative Canadians and understand that Trudeau is a strong campaigner and seems to have the ability to connect with Canadians that sometimes Conservatives seem to struggle with.”

‘Growth mindset’ required

Jonathan Malloy, a political science professor at Carleton University, said O’Toole’s most pressing task is to get the party in a “growth mindset” that widens its appeal to voters beyond its core supporters in order to defeat the Liberals. 

O’Toole’s strategy was focused on existing party members and activists and being a “true blue” conservative, but he must change that tack to broaden the support base. 

He must also manage the challenging issue of social conservatism in the party. 

“The Sloan and Lewis candidacies have shown the resilience of the social conservative wing of the party. Yet it is a minority, probably in the party, and certainly among the general public,” he said by email.

“Harper tried hard to tamp down social conservatives in the party, but also generally avoided the issue, and was reasonably effective at steering the party through these issues by just not engaging with them. Scheer tried to do the same. However, opinion has shifted in Canada so far, particularly on LGBT rights, that avoidance is not good enough — voters demand a clear stance.”

WATCH / How the Conservative leadership ballots are counted:

The new leader of the Conservative Party will be elected through a ranked ballot system that awards points to each candidate. 1:11

A snap election is possible for the fall, as Trudeau prorogued Parliament until Sept. 23. A new session will begin with a throne speech and a confidence vote on the government’s agenda.

Memorial University political science professor Alex Marland said the new leader must foster a united public front. 

“Every leadership contest sows internal divisions that require repair,” he said.

Marland said the new leader would be wise to prioritize cultivating caucus buy-in for staying on message in public forums by engaging caucus members in policy development, reaching out individually to MPs and seeking advice from former party leaders.  

“Many people think that the main work of the leader of the official opposition is to take on the prime minister, and ready the Conservatives to score points against the Liberals on given issues. The truth is much less glamorous,” he said. “The main immediate work is to build internal cohesion in private so that the caucus and the party can move forward as a united team in public.”

The Conservative leadership race unfolded during a global pandemic. The traditional town halls, rallies and other events were mostly cancelled due to physical distancing and other public health guidelines to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

There were four candidates in the race to replace Scheer:

Leslyn Lewis

Lawyer Leslyn Lewis is a political newcomer. Her family immigrated to Canada from Jamaica when she was five. She has practised law for nearly 20 years and has multiple degrees, including a master’s degree in environmental studies and a PhD from Osgoode Hall law school. A social conservative, she would have become the first Black woman to lead a Canadian national political party. She has said she decided to run to promote party unity and national unity, and wants the Conservative Party to be a “big-tent party” where people are free to hold divergent beliefs.

Peter MacKay

MacKay is a lawyer and former Conservative cabinet minister in Stephen Harper’s government. He led the Progressive Conservative Party when it merged with the Canadian Alliance to form what is now the Conservative Party of Canada in 2003. In Harper’s cabinet, he held several top portfolios, including defence, foreign affairs and justice. During the campaign, MacKay said he would take “bold action” to get Canada’s economy back on track as it recovers from the global pandemic.

Erin O’Toole

O’Toole served as minister of veterans affairs under Harper, and most recently served as the party’s foreign affairs critic. He finished third in the last Conservative leadership race in 2017. After 12 years serving in the Royal Canadian Air Force, O’Toole earned his law degree and worked as a corporate lawyer. He has said his focus will be to create jobs and revive Canada’s economy if elected leader.

Derek Sloan

Sloan is an Ontario MP who attended law school at Queen’s University after owning and operating several small businesses. The social conservative has denounced what he calls the erosion of free speech, freedom of religion, and freedom of conscience in Canada, and the “politically correct culture.” He said he would rescind the carbon tax and gun ban and pull Canada out of World Health Organization if elected party leader.

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