What does Leslyn Lewis' strong finish mean for the Conservatives?
OTTAWA -- The only woman and visible minority candidate in the Conservative leadership race emerged a competitive contender as the results trickled in during the early hours of Monday morning, raising questions about what her achievements mean for the future of the party.
The second ballot results show Leslyn Lewis, with the least amount of previous political experience, was neck-and-neck with the two front-runners and long-time Tories Erin O’Toole and Peter MacKay.
She secured 20.49 per cent of votes in the first ballot, compared to MacKay who came out on top holding 33.52 per cent of votes, followed by O’Toole at 31.6 per cent. Sloan was eliminated with just 14.39 per cent of support. In the second round, Lewis picked up 30 per cent of votes, falling just behind MacKay’s 34.78 per cent and O’Toole’s 35.22 per cent.
As party insiders and political pundits reflect on what the results say about where the party stands and how it can move from engaging Conservative voters to Canadian voters, especially with murmurs of a fall election, Lewis’ success story will undoubtedly be a key talking point.
WHERE SHE FOUND SUPPORT
The Toronto-based lawyer who has never held elected office picked up major support in Saskatchewan in the first round ballot, winning all but the Desnethé—Missinippi—Churchill River riding which went to O’Toole. She came second to MacKay in the territories, Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia and to O’Toole in Alberta.
Her support sank in Quebec, where she came last among all four candidates. Lewis’ notable inexperience in the French language was a central takeaway from the mid-June debate.
In the second ballot, Lewis led in Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan. Notably, she edged ahead of O’Toole in Ontario, but couldn’t match MacKay’s support. Following a fall federal election campaign when Conservatives lost significant ground in Ontario and Quebec, a key focus of this leadership race was centred on finding a candidate who could win in Canada’s most populous provinces and particularly in urban areas.
WHAT HER SUPPORT MEANS
Conservative strategist and Vice President at Summa Strategies Kate Harrison says Lewis’ success can be attributed to her bringing a fresh perspective to the usual political narrative; coming in as an outsider, as a woman, and a visible minority.
"There was an appetite from a lot of party members to look outside the front-runners to see what the options were that were on the table," said Harrison in an interview with CTVNews.ca on Monday. "That’s why we saw different names being bandied about at the beginning like Rona Ambrose, John Baird and others. This was an interesting moment for her to enter."
Harrison says her widespread support, namely in the West, challenges the notion that a large swath of the Conservative membership in that region will only vote for old, white men.
"The fact that she was able to do so, so well – almost one in three people who cast a ballot have her marked at some point on their ballot – that’s remarkable for a political newbie," she said, adding that Lewis’ social conservative values likely evaded a dip in votes among people who were otherwise apprehensive about her.
Lewis campaigned on a promise to ban sex-selective abortions, protect women against coerced abortions, increase funding for pregnancy care centres, end funding for abortions overseas, and allow free votes for MPs on all conscience matters. She said she would not march in a Pride parade but pointed to her legal history representing same-sex couples as proof she would represent all Canadians.
"I think what sets her apart from say a Derek Sloan was that she approached those kinds of value issues in an accessible way, so her answers on things like abortion or right to life had a bit more nuance than what we’ve seen from social conservative candidates in the past," said Harrison.
"She made a real effort to be a leadership candidate who happened to be a social conservative rather than a social conservative who just also happened to be running for the leadership."
Her campaign manager Steve Outhouse told CTV’s News Channel on Sunday evening that anti-racism protests that erupted worldwide following the death of George Floyd had a major impact on their campaign trajectory.
"When she started to talk about more, I would say controversial or sensitive topics in terms of things like Black Lives Matter and the prime minister going to Parliament Hill and taking a knee, when other Canadians were being asked repeatedly by the government to stay at home and miss family gatherings and funerals and weddings, that really sprung us forward and there was huge interest in our social media content, which translated to a lot of donations."
Elections Canada’s latest fundraising report shows MacKay at the front of the pack having pulled in around $3.1 million, followed by O’Toole who generated $2.5 million. Lewis trailed in third with $1.8 million – though her campaign tweeted on Saturday it had reached the $2 million mark – and Sloan sat at $852,340.
Harrison predicts Lewis’ future in the party is bright, whether directly tied to the O’Toole camp or not.
"She’s made it clear she’d like to run in the next election but I don’t think that’s the only way she would have influence in the O’Toole office, particularly because the way that we gather and talk about policy and the way we meet with members is very, very different now."
She said Lewis would be beneficial in helping to convene smaller groups of supporters and to ensure there’s a diversity of perspective in the policy making process.
Lewis lost to Liberal MP Gary Anandasangaree in the Scarborough-Rouge Park riding in the 2015 election. Harrison said she wouldn’t be surprised if O’Toole called on her to run in the York Centre by election.
"I don’t see her being excluded, if anything I see her having certainly more influence in the party than she did when she first entered the race."