The Conservative leadership race: Crowded, but maybe not so complicated.

The first Conservative Party of Canada leadership debate, held in Saskatoon.

Watching the media coverage of the Conservative Party of Canada leadership race has been at times yawn-inducing, and at other times incredibly frustrating. Canada’s journalists go back and forth between smirking at how many candidates are running (ignoring the fact that the NDP leadership race has a whopping ZERO candidates), and lazily suggesting all the candidates are essentially the same (apart from Kellie Leitch, whom the media are dubbing the “Trump-of-the-North”). Here are my thoughts on the race, which will hopefully provide a bit more context for anyone who, up until now, hasn’t really been paying attention:

1. The safe bet: Andrew Scheer.

Andrew Scheer, MP for Regina-Qu’Appelle

Before my Conservative friends who are already supporting other candidates sputter in protest, hear me out, and try to compare Scheer to his main rival, Justin Trudeau. Andrew Scheer is 37 years old, fully bilingual and a father of five. He has been an MP for 12 years (first elected in 2004) and was the youngest ever Speaker of the House of Commons. While the media will likely try to paint him as a social conservative, he is in fact more of a pragmatic conservative à la Stephen Harper or Patrick Brown. The main selling point, in my opinion, is that he’ll be around for a while. Even if the Conservatives lose to Trudeau in 2019, as long as they hold on to their ~100 seats, Scheer could be seen as a Prime Minister in waiting. If the Conservatives are smart (and play it safe), they’ll pick Andrew Scheer.

2. The “radicals”…or policy wonks.

Top: Maxime Bernier, MP for Beauce — Bottom: Michael Chong, MP for Wellington-Halton Hills

There does seem to be a bit of buzz surrounding two candidates who are in many ways the most ‘interesting’ in the field. Both Michael Chong and Maxime Bernier have been unveiling an impressive number of policy positions on a variety of topics: Bernier wants to scrap the Canada Health Transfer, Chong favours a BC-style carbon tax, Bernier opposes corporate welfare, Chong wants to make party memberships free, and so on and so forth… The problem with these candidates is that they are inextricably linked to their innovative policies, which may not be supported by the party base (Chong, for instance, was booed at a recent debate for even mentioning a carbon tax). Because the party membership are using ranked ballots to elect their leader, the successful candidate will be a more “middle-of-the-road” candidate: not too polarizing so as to be everyone’s second choice, if not their first. In a way, Chong and Bernier are like the Bernie Sanders of the party: their real victory will be if the party adopts their ideas after the leadership race is over.

3. Bland, Bland, and more Bland.

Lisa Raitt, MP for Milton — Erin O’Toole, MP for Durham — Deepak Obhrai, MP for Calgary Forest Lawn

The three ‘serious’ candidates who inspire the least amount of enthusiasm are as follows: Lisa Raitt, Erin O’Toole & Deepak Obhrai. To be clear, I think they’re all capable politicians and even capable leaders. Here’s the problem: a) They’ve been offering very little in the way of policy: and b) They don’t speak French! They’re main pitch is that they’re convinced to their core they can beat Justin Trudeau in 2019…without offering any new ideas. Sound like a strange strategy? Well it is. And while I think it’s important for women, veterans and minorities to have a strong place in the party, I don’t think these three candidates will do anything to energize the party faithful, let alone the rest of Canada. They’re best hope is for high-profile (and well-deserved) cabinet positions in a new Conservative government.

4. The Trump factor(s).

So now we have to address the Republican elephant in the room: President-Elect Donald Trump. What does he have in common with Kellie Leitch, who, in some polls, is actually leading the field among Conservatives? The answer is: almost nothing.

Trump is a billionaire reality TV star who has styled himself as the anti-establishment politician - with no political experience, no military service, and a whole host of well documented scandals from “pussy-gate” to the Trump University lawsuits. Leitch, on the other hand, is an orthopaedic surgeon who holds degrees from Queen’s University and the University of Toronto, as well as an MBA from Dalhousie University. She used to teach at Western University and is still an associate professor at U of T. She’s been involved in politics for years, both at the Ontario provincial level and federally, and was first elected in 2011. She’s a practicing Catholic with nothing in the way of personal scandal. All in all, she is the type of establishment candidate Trump would purport to oppose.

The first Conservative Party of Canada leadership debate, held in Saskatoon.

The only thing that really links them is one very hot-button policy area: immigration. We all know, of course, that Trump isn’t exactly an “arms-open-wide” type of politician when it comes to welcoming people to America (See: ‘build the wall’, ‘extreme vetting;, ‘Mexican rapists & drug dealers’). Leitch has also been calling for restrictions on immigration, in the form of a so-called “Anti-Canadian Values Test”. She was also heavily involved in the past government’s unveiling of a ‘barbaric cultural practices’ tip line, largely regarded as xenophobic and detrimental to the 2015 election campaign.

In my opinion, the comparison to Trump is weak at best. What will really determine whether or not Leitch is the “Canadian Trump” is how much the media keeps covering her. The more time the media spends talking about Leitch, the more traction her campaign can get. And nobody knows the value of free press coverage better than the Donald…

5. The “also-rans”…what are their names again?

There is little to say about these folks, as they don’t have much hope of securing the leadership, so here’s a very quick rundown:

  • Chris Alexander was once a pretty highly regarded diplomat (Canada’s first resident ambassador to Afghanistan), but lost his Ajax-Pickering seat in the last election.
  • Brad Trost, MP for Saskatoon-University, is your typical social Conservative. Don’t get me wrong, there’s an important place for social conservatism in the party, but Trost feels like a one (or maybe two) issue candidate.
  • Andrew Saxton, MP for North Vancouver, was parliamentary secretary to both Jim Flaherty and Joe Oliver.
  • Steven Blaney, MP for Bellechasse-Les Etchemins-Lévis, is basically the francophone version of Kellie Leitch in terms of policy…he just has way less public profile.
  • Dan Lindsay is not an MP, but he is president of the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Manitoba….so there’s that, I guess.

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Note: In this article, I have only considered ‘declared candidates’. People like Kevin O’Leary, who have talked about running but haven’t declared, will be included when they formally enter the race. The same goes for people who have previously said they won’t run, but may still (Peter MacKay and Jason Kenney, for example).