‘I’m Erin O’Toole’: New Conservative leader named after a race like no other

By | August 23, 2020

OTTAWA — Erin O’Toole is the new leader of the Conservative Party of Canada, securing victory on the third ballot after a historic and months-long leadership campaign.

“To the millions of Canadians that are still up, that I’m meeting tonight for the first time: Good morning. I’m Erin O’Toole, you’re going to be seeing and hearing a lot from me in the coming weeks and months, but I want you to know from the start that I’m here to fight for you and your family,” he said in his first speech as leader in the early morning hours on Monday.

O’Toole, an MP from Ontario, defeated Peter MacKay, clinching 57 per cent of party support, after picking up down-ballot support from Leslyn Lewis and Derek Sloan supporters.

MacKay was narrowly leading after the first ballot but he finished the race in second, while Lewis came in third with a strong showing, and Sloan finished fourth and was the first to drop off the ballot. His down-ballot support was reallocated to the remaining candidates but was not enough to decide the race.

That prompted the third-ballot round where O’Toole picked up considerable support from Lewis supporters. 

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The support was calculated in points, with 100 points allocated to each of the 338 ridings, meaning there were 33,800 points up for grabs. The winner needed to secure at least 16,901 points to win. O’Toole secured 19,271, with strong showings in Alberta and Quebec.

Despite many party supporters viewing the race early on as an easy win for MacKay, it quickly became a tight fight between him and O’Toole. The unprecedented nature of 2020 made some wonder whether there would be some surprising results, depending on how the support for a late-in-the-race surge by Lewis and social conservative-backed Sloan would play out.

O’Toole, 47, was given a chance to introduce himself and spell out his vision for the future and direction of the party, a role he now takes over from Andrew Scheer.

In his speech, O’Toole said that there is a place in his party for all Canadians, regardless of race, religion, economic standing, education or sexual orientation. He also thanked his opponents as well as the tens of thousands of Canadians that voted for him.

“You put your faith in me to lead this historic party, and I’m honoured and humbled. I promise you I will not let you down,” O’Toole said.

MacKay, the candidate who ran with the most progressive platform in the race and had top fundraising and membership figures did not address reporters after his defeat, but offered his congratulations to O’Toole on social media, saying it’s time for the party to “come together, and to focus on what’s most important: ensuring our country gets moving in the right direction again.”

Lewis, who made history as the first ever Black woman to be in the running to lead the Conservative party, ending up in the kingmaker position. She has vowed to try for a seat in the House of Commons regardless of the outcome of the race, and her support is sure to prompt questions about the role and prominence she will play under O’Toole. 

BALLOTS SLICED BY MACHINE

The announcement of the federal political party’s new leader got underway at 12:20 a.m. ET Monday, after hours of delays due to thousands of ballots being damaged during the counting process.

The big reveal was supposed to start at 6 p.m. ET on Sunday, but just 30 minutes before the show was set to get rolling, the party announced it was behind schedule in tabulating the winner.

Over the more than four hours of waiting, the picture of what was happening in the counting room became clear: The envelope-opening machines being used were “slicing through” a percentage of the 174,849 mail-in ballots, resulting in “several thousand” being damaged, according to the party.

Party officials have yet to offer a precise figure, but said that thousands of ballots were ripped or damaged and either had to be carefully scrutinized to establish the markings, or new ballots had to be marked with the same data, a process that took longer than anticipated.

In an interview on CTV News Channel, Conservative Leadership Election Organizing Committee (LEOC) co-chair Lisa Raitt said the issue stemmed from the envelopes used. The party used smaller envelopes than they have in the past for mail-in ballots in an effort to send out and receive back the ballots as quickly as possible.

“The machines aren’t jiving as well as they did last time,” she said.

The deadline to submit ballots was 5 p.m. ET on Friday, but officials didn’t begin tallying the ballots until the early morning hours on Sunday.

The party initially cited the record number of ballots cast, coupled with the COVID-19 restrictions in place where the tabulations took place as the cause of the hold-up. The ongoing pandemic forced the party to decide the winner using mail-in ballots only, the first time the party has had to process mail-in ballots on this scale.

The restrictions on indoor gatherings also meant that instead of crowds of supporters packed in to celebrate, each candidate watched the results from separate rooms at an Ottawa convention centre, with small bubbles of family and friends.

According to The Canadian Press, MacKay passed the time doing push-ups in his room, while O’Toole was hosting Zoom calls with his supporters.

Once O’Toole’s team did the quick math and realized they were victorious, many threw distancing precautions aside, albeit with masks on, hugging each other in celebration of the moment.

While the initial plan was to spell out the province-by-province results for each round of balloting, the lengthy delays resulted in the party scrapping that plan, delivering the regional breakdown for only the first round, and just the national breakdown for the the second and third ballot results, in quick succession. Digging further into the regional breakdown of the support in the days ahead will provide further insight into where O’Toole may succeed in boosting the party’s standing and where the Tories will have work to do.

“The alienation of the West is real. And we have to make sure we reconcile East and West, Quebec and the social conservatives with the broader tent,” Conservative MP and one-time candidate Marilyn Gladu said on CTV News Channel, prior to the results being announced.

“In addition to that, how are we going to win young people? How are we going to win more women to the party? And what are we going to do to put an environmental policy in place that speaks to climate change and the issues that Canadians are looking for? So that’s what the party needs to come with and that’s why I’m ready to help. We’re going to expand the tent, win the next election,” Gladu said.  

O’TOOLE’S PATH TO VICTORY

After finishing third in the 2017 leadership race, O’Toole hired some social media and marketing savvy staff to help up his profile during this campaign.

The three-time Conservative MP represents the riding of Durham, Ont. He and his wife Rebecca O’Toole have two children. He was first elected in a 2012 byelection, and went on to become a Stephen Harper-era veterans’ affairs minister. Prior to entering politics O’Toole was in the Royal Canadian Air Force for a decade and later worked as a lawyer.

In this race O’Toole took populist policy positions looking to appeal to the base of the party. He described himself as the “true blue” candidate and had focused his sights squarely on MacKay, who he said would have divided the party due to his more socially-progressive views.

“We will come together again as a strong, united party. We will respect one another and our diversity of opinions. And we will work together like never before,” reads O’Toole’s campaign page.

His platform included ideas of where he thinks “the puck is heading” before the next election.

“I believe that Conservatives do best when we focus on strong ideas for our future and when we leverage the strength of grassroots across the country… As leader of the Conservative Party of Canada, I commit to work with ALL Conservatives to live up to the promise of our great country. My family and I are devoted to working with our team to rebuild our party in areas where we are weak,” it reads in part.

A key moment for O’Toole’s campaign was when Alberta Premier Jason Kenney threw his support behind him, with a key western Canada endorsement.

Though over the seven-month campaign, O’Toole also faced criticism over using parliamentary resources during his campaign, as well as outsourcing to a U.S. call centre to do voter outreach.

O’Toole has routinely touted his standing as a current MP as a key asset in holding the Liberals to account “on day one.”

“I’m in the House of Commons ready to go on day one… to confront the government. I’ve got cabinet experience, military experience, and private sector experience. So I’m ready to go. I’m ready to be the prime minister. I’m the only one in this race like that. I would also be the first leader we’ve chosen from Ontario since 1948,” O’Toole said in an interview on Your Morning on Aug. 18.

Being in the chamber will be key for O’Toole as he is inheriting the party at a key moment.

NEW LEADER, NEW CHAPTER

The crowning of the party’s new leader marks the start of a new chapter for the federal party.

O’Toole will also need to immediately work to establish party unity after the sometimes fractious and months-long leadership race.

Rallying the party across the country as well as the cadre of 121 MPs in Ottawa will be essential, as the Liberal minority has suspended Parliament to regroup amid talk of a snap election.

O’Toole will also have to soon spell out how they plan to be an effective Official Opposition, and their path to defeating Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in the next election, which could be called in a month’s time, depending on the outcome of what’s set to be a series of key confidence votes once the House of Commons reconvenes on Sept. 23.

In a statement reacting to the results, Liberal Party of Canada President Suzanne Cowan congratulated O’Toole, but also implored him to work with the other parties to lead Canada through the ongoing public health crisis.

“We have a real chance to build a Canada that is healthier and safer, greener, more fair, and more competitive, and while we will have our differences, we hope the Conservative leader will join us in that work,” she said. “We also hope Mr. O’Toole will reconsider continuing to push the same policies of Stephen Harper and Andrew Scheer that he also proposed in this leadership campaign. They would take Canada backward.”  

Ahead of the results, each campaign sought to highlight their candidate’s strengths in leveraging the reality of a largely virtual campaign and get-out-the-vote efforts gathering ballots from every corner of the country in time for them to be counted.

The COVID-19 pandemic drastically altered the timeline and campaigning strategies each team had, but with the prospect of a snap federal election on the horizon the candidates having to learn how to hold Zoom rallies and Facebook Live announcements is set to come in handy O’Toole soon have to find public health-friendly alternatives to shaking hands and kissing babies.

SCHEER RALLIES FOR UNITY

While the vote tabulating was being sorted out, the party went ahead with the pre-result aspects of the evening, including speeches from Conservative Party President Scott Lamb and Scheer.

During his address, Lamb highlighted that the Conservatives won the popular vote in the 2019 federal election campaign, and thanked Scheer for his years at the helm.

“Andrew Scheer kept the party unified. He has listened to and understood all points of view in our big Conservative tent. He built momentum to put our party into contention to win government again, winning key byelections that we had not won in generation, building our party’s lead in fundraising and welcoming Liberals to join our party,” Lamb said.

In his speech, Scheer vowed to do everything he can to help his successor find the common ground among the various factions of the party.

“After tonight, let’s all rally behind a new leader and do everything we can to make sure that the next leader of the Conservative Party becomes the next prime minister of this great country,” Scheer said. “For the last few months, the different candidates and their supporters have been highlighting the differences between them, after tonight let’s all come together.”

“We are in an excellent position, but we cannot be complacent. Our party’s unity has been tested in the past and media love nothing more than writing about disgruntled Conservatives, so we cannot give them that opportunity,” Scheer said.

Scheer touted he is leaving the party without any debt, after questions were raised about his expenses during the campaign.

He also urged Conservatives to be a “silent majority” no more. “Don’t be afraid to challenge leftist professors or public figures, millions of Canadians share our Conservative values, they just don’t all know it yet,” Scheer said.

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