Kellie Leitch, Maxime Bernier enter Conservative leadership race
Published Wednesday, April 6, 2016 6:33AM EDT
Last Updated Wednesday, April 6, 2016 11:03PM EDT
Ontario MP Kellie Leitch and Quebec MP Maxime Bernier are throwing their hats in the ring for the 2017 federal Conservative leadership race.
Leitch, who served in two different cabinet posts under former prime minister Stephen Harper, became the first official candidate to enter the fray on Wednesday.
For weeks the 45-year-old had been putting together a team for a potential leadership run and formally registered so she could begin to work out in the open.
"I'm looking forward to speaking with party members across the country -- to hear directly from them and to share my ideas about what I believe we need to do to grow our movement and chart a course for our party to win in 2019," Leitch said in a statement.
Leitch, a pediatric orthopedic surgeon by trade, first rose to prominence in politics as a strategist in Progressive Conservative MPP Christine Elliot's 2009 leadership bid. She then ran and was elected for the Conservatives in the federal riding of Simcoe-Grey.
Under Harper's leadership, Leitch held the posts of minister of labour and minister for the status of women.
Leitch will be joined at the starting line by Bernier, who is expected to submit his leadership application on Thursday.
Bernier, 53, entered federal politics in 2006, when he was elected in the Quebec riding of Beauce. The former businessman is known for his preference for small government and is one of the party's most high-profile MPs in Quebec.
He also served as minister of industry, minister of foreign affairs and, most recently, minister of state for small business and tourism.
In the lead up to the submission of his leadership bid, Bernier took to Twitter to rail against any potential grants or bailouts to the corporate sector, despite the fact that Harper, and his party, spent billions bailing out General Motors and Chrysler in 2009.
"Give me a break with the GM bailout," he wrote on Twitter. "I was not in favour of it."
Even though their leadership runs are just about to begin, both candidates come with some baggage.
As the status of women minister, Leitch pitched an RCMP tip line so citizens could report "barbaric cultural practices." The program drew the ire of many critics and some say it contributed to the Conservatives’ failure to return to power in federal election last October.
Leitch also faces a potential language barrier: though she speaks French, she does not consider herself totally fluent and has been working on it since the election.
Quebec MP Gerard Deltell has said it is essential that a new Conservative leader can appeal to the province, as well as English-speaking Canada.
"What I want and what I ask is that our leader will be able to face anyone in English or French in the debate three years from now for the election," said Deltell.
Meanwhile, Bernier was bounced out of cabinet in 2007 for leaving secret documents at his then-girlfriend's home.
But with a campaign spending cap of $5 million, an early start has strategic advantages.
"As soon as you're registered, you can start raising money and get your hands on Conservative party membership lists, which are really the important part of the race," political strategist and managing principal of Navigator, Will Stewart, told CTV News.
However, there is a long list of undeclared potential contenders, including: Tony Clement, Lisa Raitt, Michael Chong, Jason Kenney and Peter MacKay.
MacKay, who held numerous top cabinet posts under Harper, has given no indication he'll jump in.
While Kenney's supporters say the former minister of national defence has the fundraising clout to catch up to the early entrants.
But he isn't expected to declare until later, possibly in the fall.
"Folks like former ministers Peter MacKay and Jason Kenney, among others, I think will benefit the race and make it more competitive," predicted, Stephen Lecce, Harper's former director of media relations.
The race could potentially have wildcard entrants such as Kevin O'Leary, the chair of O'Leary Financial Group and a Bell Media on-air contributor, who has drawn comparisons to U.S. Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump.
But he told The Canadian Press in a statement that he has not yet decided if he will make a bid.
"Way too early for any candidate to comment, including me!" O'Leary said in an email.
The Conservative leadership race will likely heat up next month as party faithful are set to gather in Vancouver for a policy convention.
The actual vote is not scheduled until May 27, 2017.
The leadership race rules require candidate applications to receive 300 signatures from party members from at least 30 electoral districts and seven different provinces and territories.
Candidates must also pay a $50,000 fee and additional $50,000 as a deposit in case they break any campaign rules.
The process also causes requirements from Elections Canada to disclose donations and campaign spending to kick in.
With a report from CTV’s Senior Political Correspondent Glen McGregor and files from The Canadian Press