Kevin O'Leary's campaign chair challenges MP Cheryl Gallant for Conservative nomination

A long time Conservative MP known for controversial comments is facing a challenge for her seat from Kevin O'Leary's former campaign manager.

At least 6 former candidates for the Conservative leadership face challengers for local riding nominations

Conservative MP Cheryl Gallant is being challenged in her riding by Mike Coates, who says he did not choose to run against Gallant for the Conservative nomination because she has a history making political missteps. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

He is a businessman who spent decades behind the scenes in politics, most recently chairing Kevin O'Leary's campaign to lead the Conservative Party. She was first elected as Canadian Alliance MP and has spent the better part of two decades in the House of Commons, occasionally finding her way into the national spotlight with controversial remarks.

Now Mike Coates is challenging Cheryl Gallant for the Conservative nomination in the Ontario riding of Renfrew-Nipissing-Pembroke.

"I think it's very important that people who can bring life experience to the table, who really know how business runs, throw their hat in the ring. Kevin, I think, at the end of the day didn't have the interest to see it through to the end. I'm going to," Coates told CBC News.

The Conservative Party opened up nominations in the ridings of 92 MPs across the country, all of whom held their seats since the last election.

The Conservative Party of Canada won't say precisely how many incumbent MPs are being challenged for their seats. Would-be nominees have already submitted their applications to the party. The next step is interviewing with a candidate selection committee. Then a national committee decides whether to greenlight an individual's candidacy.

The Canadian Press reported last week that at least three Tory MPs who ran for party leader this year are now facing challenges for their seats: Kellie Leitch, Brad Trost and Deepak Obhrai.

CBC News has learned of at least two more Conservative MPs facing challenges: Edmonton area MP Mike Lake and Jim Eglinski, who represents the western Alberta riding of Yellowhead.

Nomination races in any party can risk creating bad blood, though Conservatives have remained largely cordial thus far.

In the case of the Renfrew-Nipissing-Pembroke face-off, Gallant has a long history in the riding and beat her second-placed Liberal challenger last election by more than 13 percentage points.

Foot in mouth 

However, Gallant has also garnered public attention for controversy and missteps.

She publicly apologized in 2016 for using an image of slain Cpl. Nathan Cirillo, the Canadian soldier who died three years ago in the attack on Parliament Hill, in a partisan fundraiser that offered potential donors Easter hams.

In 2015, she was criticized for saying Ontario's sex education curriculum was written by someone facing child pornography charges, which it was not, and that it might result in children being "groomed for exploitation."

Mike Coates, the former chair of Kevin O'Leary's campaign, is challenging Gallant. (Hill and Knowlton/hkstrategies.ca)

Coates said he chose the riding because it's where he lives, not because of Gallant's record.

"This is not about Cheryl," he said. "The party put together a democratic process in November and they're looking for a good democratic race. I've chosen to compete in the riding that I'm housed."

Coates held several high-profile positions with lobbying firm Hill and Knowlton, including president of the Americas, before retiring earlier this year. He has been involved in conservative politics since 1980, when he worked on Parliament Hill. He was secretary and treasurer for the federal Progressive Conservatives and helped Stephen Harper in his debate preparation for three elections.

While he wants to put the emphasis on using his business experience to improve the local economy, Coates says after nearly 20 years with Gallant as MP, "the party is entitled to look at another option."

"I wouldn't want people to feel they have to vote Liberal to get change."

Gallant did not respond to a request for comment from CBC News.

Obhrai says he 'misspoke' when citing a conspiracy

The feistiest race so far seems to be the one in Calgary Forest Lawn, where Deepak Obhrai is facing off against a former provincial politician.

The Calgary Herald reported that former Progressive Conservative MLA Moe Amery was prepared to challenge Obhrai and was accusing the long serving MP of not wanting to be "an active member."

Obhrai posted on Facebook that someone had been spreading "false rumours" that he was retiring and referenced a "conspiracy" to challenge him.

On Friday, Obhrai put out a statement attempting to clarify his previous remarks.

"In my earlier Facebook post, I misspoke by using the word conspiracy. I was referring to a personal vendetta against me, by long-time political opponents."

​He ​also defended his record. 

​"As to Mr. Amery's assertion that I am not fulfilling my duties as MP, I am puzzled. Like with any constituent of mine, whenever Mr. Amery has approached my office for help with his personal issues on federal matters, I assisted him."

Leitch: Nomination process is 'healthy'

Kellie Leitch has two nomination challengers for her Ontario riding of Simcoe-Grey. However, the former Conservative leadership candidate said she's not worried.

"No. Not at all. We recently did some research in the riding and we know that I do very well."

Leitch, a pediatric orthopedic surgeon, is being challenged by Harvard graduate and obstetrician-gynecologist, Gillian Yeates, as well as Terry Dowdall, the mayor of Essa Township, which is located in the riding.

Leitch became the subject of national controversy last year when she ran for the Conservative leadership on a platform that included testing immigrants and visitors to Canada for what she called "Canadian values." It was a divisive proposition in the race and had some fellow leadership candidates, such as Michael Chong and Deepak Obharai, openly condemning her plan.

Conservative MP Kellie Leitch says having contested nominations for ridings is a sign of party strength. (Liam Richards/Canadian Press)

Leitch told CBC News she doesn't believe that proposal sparked a nomination challenge, adding that "Conservatives are united behind national public security ideas."

One of her two challengers said that is not what drew him into the race.

"For me it's not that issue," said Dowdall. "I'm really running, quite frankly, because in my political career I want to do more for more people and represent them."

As for the nomination process itself, Leitch said she's all for it.

"I do believe in having contested nominations. It shows the party is a strong party and has a healthy process."

About the Author

Catherine Cullen

Parliamentary Bureau

Catherine Cullen is a senior reporter covering politics and Parliament Hill in Ottawa.

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