What O’Toole’s Victory Means for Canadian Politics

Erin O’Toole has emerged as the third-ballot victor in the Conservative Party’s Leadership race and is the new leader of the Conservative Party. Former Cabinet Minister and PC Party Leader Peter MacKay finished in second, while newcomer Leslyn Lewis surprised many with a very strong third place performance. First term MP, Derek Sloan, finished fourth.

Anatomy of Victory

Since the CPC used a preferential voting ballot, where party members could rank their choice for leader from first to fourth choice, O’Toole’s path to victory became clear after the first ballot. The strategy of the O’Toole camp was to make him the second choice of as many camps as possible.

Given McKay’s weak showing on the first ballot (just 33 per cent) and O’Toole’s strong support as the second choice amongst other camps, his path to victory was virtually set. After his elimination in the first round, two-thirds of Sloan’s support went to Lewis, producing a very tight second-round result, with just 5 per cent, separating O’Toole in first place from Lewis in third.

Once Lewis dropped off the ballot in round two, O’Toole and MacKay went head to head, with O’Toole emerging with 57 per cent of the vote, to MacKay’s 43 per cent. In contrast to the previous leadership won by Andrew Scheer with 51 per cent of the vote, O’Toole’s victory is considered a decisive win.

Before moving on to O’Toole and what we can expect from his leadership, a few thoughts on the vote:

McKay’s team always knew that they needed much stronger support on the first ballot to chart a path to victory. This required a stronger ground game, with a bigger expansion of the Party among those who would support MacKay. This did not happen and the mood in the McKay camp said it all. Simply put, the O’Toole campaign out hustled the MacKay campaign where it mattered most: appealing to the membership.

The Emergence of Leslyn Lewis

While O’Toole’s team may still be celebrating their victory today, the story of last night was the candidacy of Leslyn Lewis. A BIPOC woman whom many had never heard of at the start of this race who almost caused an upset.

Many observers are classifying Lewis as a moderate social conservative who achieved success because of the monolithic voting of socons, but this narrative ignores the fact that her support was much broader across the party membership. She placed very well west of Ontario, winning first ballot support in Saskatchewan, and placing second in Alberta.

The modern-day Conservative Party is still a mix of social and fiscal conservatives, libertarians, and populists. Lewis’ plain-speaking campaign, where talking points were eschewed in favour of clearly articulating her plan, tapped into something deeper amongst Conservatives. Her inability to speak passable French may have cost her the race last night.

It will be interesting to watch the O’Toole camp to see how he involves her, and whether he can cement the support she tapped into.

O’Toole Sets Tone for Conservative Party

In his late-night victory speech, O’Toole emphasized that the Conservative Party was ready for the next election, even if it comes quickly. He also recognized that outside the Conservative fold, he is relatively unknown, and introduced himself. Finally, he used the opportunity to speak to Quebeckers, whose support was key to his victory.

Overall, O’Toole represents a continuation in the evolution of Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party. With O’Toole, the candidate with the public backing of Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, the party recognized that maintaining unity within the big blue tent was best done by someone who understands and speaks to all aspects of the party.

Keeping western Conservatives on-side with his leadership, while moderating to find roughly 1 million more voters than the party had in 2019 will be O’Toole’s main challenge. This is not an easy coalition to hold together and the fracture lines are already evident with western alienation.

To win the west, the O’Toole campaign paid homage to the coalition that Stephen Harper stitched together. But it cannot rely on Harper’s same formula for success. A new model needs to be created that is grounded in 2020, not 2005. As an Ontario MP O’Toole may be the key to unlocking the suburban vote.

The Road Ahead

For O’Toole, the upcoming Speech from the Throne on September 23rd will provide the first major leadership test in the House of Commons. While it can be assumed that the Conservatives will continue to oppose the Liberal government, the next month provides the O’Toole camp with a short runway to sell its vision to Canadians – and to present a positive alternative to the current government.

O’Toole’s early decisions as leader, including staffing in the Opposition Leaders Office and changes to the Party’s Shadow Cabinet will set the tone in his approach and lay the groundwork for the Conservative team that will take on the Trudeau Liberals in the next election.

While an election is by no means guaranteed this fall, the clock is ticking on the remaining lifespan for the Liberal minority government. O’Toole will have a very short amount of time to establish his leadership and address three imperatives for the Conservative Party:

Party Unity and Power Shifts

For the first time, the Conservative Leader is not from the West. From an electoral perspective, this can extend the Conservatives’ reach to vote-rich suburban ridings in Ontario and Quebec. However, much of the caucus and the party’s electoral base are in the west, which views this Liberal government as a threat to its economic vitality and Alberta’s resource economy. The economic growth of the west while balancing the needs of newer voters who want to see action on climate change, will need to be carefully managed.

The primary job for O’Toole will be to ensure that Conservatives are united – both in Parliament and across Canada in preparation to fight the next election. He does not have the luxury of time to unite the parliamentary team and the initial moves he makes with the caucus and the Opposition Leader’s Office will set the tone for the coming next five weeks leading up to the confidence vote following the Speech from the Throne.

The Conservative Coalition

Leslyn Lewis’ come from behind campaign prominently featured a transparent and open dialogue on her views on socially conservative issues, but her campaign did not allow those issues to define her campaign. This strength translated into $2 million raised from the highest number of individual voters during the race.

The social conservative faction of the Conservative Party has once again demonstrated that it is both organized and motivated, playing a key role in this leadership contest, as well as the previous one. However, Lewis’ campaign showed that there was a way to be socially conservative while broadening her support amongst party members who would not classify themselves as socially conservative. The true challenge for O’Toole is to examine the deeper sentiments that Lewis tapped into in this campaign.

Pivot to Win Government

A key challenge to the new Leader will be to pivot from party politics to broadening the coalition needed to win government, bridging the gap between the party’s strengths and electoral aspirations. Two elements will come into play here: timing and policy.

While Conservatives in the House of Commons are convinced that time is up for the Trudeau Liberals, the general electorate may not quite share the same position, particularly during a global pandemic. Many Canadians are more concerned about sending their kids back to school and the threat of a second wave of COVID-19, amidst the backdrop of a fragile economy.

The policies that O’Toole takes into the next election campaign will be critical. O’Toole’s extensive platform speaks to both regions of growth for the Conservatives, such as Quebec, but also to the bedrock supporters in Alberta. Whether his platform goes far enough on issues of concern to younger voters and central and eastern Canadians, such as climate change, is still an open question.

In an election scenario, the challenge to the Conservatives will be to maintain strongholds in the West while making gains in the suburban and rural regions of Ontario and Quebec. This calculus depends on the additional variables in the other opposition parties, such as the NDP and Bloc Quebecois, as well as capturing swing voters disaffected by the Liberals and not captured elsewhere. It is a complicated puzzle.

In building his leadership campaign, O’Toole demonstrated an ability to appeal to the Conservative base, build on support, and leverage allies. All good team building skills needed to maintain a delicate Conservative coalition and build on it. If he can take the same strategic approach to the electorate, there may be room for the Conservatives to grow in the next election.