By Jonathon Van Maren
Erin O’Toole has replaced Andrew Scheer as the leader of the Official Opposition in yet another leadership race that had social conservatives playing the role of kingmakers. The Toronto Star-endorsed Peter MacKay, who had accused Scheer of failing to win the last election because social conservatives were a “stinking albatross” around his neck was almost totally rejected by the right-wing side of the Conservative Party. Leslyn Lewis had over 60,000 votes on the second ballot (more than either MacKay or O’Toole) and less than 10,000 of them went to MacKay, handing O’Toole the victory. MacKay started his campaign by going to war with one of the largest factions in the Conservative Party, and it cost him the leadership.
The media, which has also attempted to claim that Scheer’s failures were due to his social conservatism, is taking note. From Eric Grenier at the CBC:
The role of the social conservative vote has been decisive in a number of recent leadership races. Andrew Scheer would not have defeated Maxime Bernier in 2017 without the backing of Conservative members who supported Pierre Lemieux and Brad Trost earlier in that contest’s voting. It isn’t a coincidence that a lot of the same people who worked on those two campaigns were involved with the Sloan and Lewis campaigns this time.
Doug Ford, who beat Christine Elliott in the 2018 Ontario Progressive Conservative leadership, also owed his victory to social conservative candidate Tanya Granic Allen, who backed Sloan in this race. The support that Lewis built in this campaign — and the voters O’Toole courted — will be difficult to ignore. Lewis raised about $2 million and, after Sloan’s elimination, had more raw votes than either O’Toole or MacKay on the second ballot. She was the top choice on that ballot across Western Canada, while MacKay was ahead in Ontario, Atlantic Canada and the North. After that second ballot, O’Toole was only leading in Quebec.
Most of you will know that I supported Leslyn Lewis for Conservative leader, ranking Derek Sloan second and Erin O’Toole third. I didn’t rank Peter MacKay at all, and like many other grassroots conservatives I spoke with, I was planning to leave the party if MacKay took the reigns. He did not even pretend to offer social conservatives anything but a promise that he would marginalize us(when he was asked directly what he would do for so-cons, he replied “defeat Justin Trudeau.”) A Conservative Party with MacKay at the helm would be, socially, no different than the Trudeau Liberal Party with a better accountant.
As Andrew Scheer hilariously highlighted to a hornswoggled CBC host last week, the Canadian media had plenty to do with the way the race shaped up. Leslyn Lewis went from no-name candidate to an overnight threat to some of the party’s heaviest hitters, and while the media talked nonstop about our Black Lives Matter moment and the elevation of people of color, Lewis got almost no media coverage for months. When she did (there was a front page story in the National Post, a good essay in Maclean’s, and a column in the Washington Post by my friend J.J. McCullough), it was nothing compared to the deluge of rejoicing by the state broadcaster and others at the selection of Kamala Harris as VP in the US.
Lewis’s candidacy, as several media commentators were forced to admit last night, was a story many of them missed. That wasn’t because she wasn’t gaining momentum among the conservative grassroots—any number of sources could have tipped them off to that story. It’s because too much attention to Leslyn Lewis too early on might have given her the runway she needed to take on both O’Toole and MacKay, and the media wouldn’t know what to do with a Conservative Party run by a Black woman—and one with a broadly popular socially conservative platform to boot. Now they can go back to speculating on the racism apparently rife within the Conservative Party despite the fact that Lewis won every province west of Ontario on the second ballot and was within one point of taking the territories. If Lewis had been a Liberal or NDP leadership candidate, she would have had to fend off reporters with a club. Because she is conservative, she was largely ignored.
While I was obviously hoping Lewis would win, especially as her momentum grew, I am relieved that Peter MacKay didn’t win. Erin O’Toole isn’t a social conservative, but Andrew Scheer was and that didn’t do us much good (O’Toole, interestingly, promised more in regard to tangible policy than Scheer did, including conscience rights and removal of funding for abortions overseas.) Like many other social conservatives, I’ll take a wait-and-see approach to O’Toole’s leadership. He knows he owes his new position to us. He has several prominent social conservatives as members of his team. Let’s hope he remembers that votes have to be earned—and that he can’t win with just social conservatives, but he will certainly never become prime minister without us.