Hamish Marshall is by all accounts bright and experienced. He has helped Andrew Scheer and the Conservative Party win before. But the man the federal Conservatives have hired to run their next election campaign comes with baggage that Scheer himself now wants to avoid — a connection to media outlet The Rebel.
If most Canadians know Marshall's name at all, it's probably because of that Rebel link. Like most campaign managers, the bespectacled and baby-faced Marshall stayed behind the scenes during Scheer's leadership race.
But in August, as growing controversy swirled around The Rebel's coverage of neo-Nazis and white nationalists in Charlottesville, Va., Scheer began to face questions about Marshall's role as a director of Rebel Media Ltd. and Scheer's own willingness to grant interviews to the outlet.
"So as long as the editorial direction of that particular institution remains as it is … I won't be granting those types of interviews," Scheer told reporters in mid-August, insisting that he wanted to focus on providing a positive vision that would bring Canadians together.
And it's precisely that tension that could prove a challenge for Scheer. Marshall helped him run a positivity-themed campaign during the leadership, focusing largely on party unity. Scheer's opponents, though, will undoubtedly point to Marshall's past in an attempt to link Scheer to the anger expressed by the so-called alt-right.
In an emailed statement, a spokesperson for the Conservative Party tried to emphasize that positivity, noting officials are "incredibly excited to have him in this role."
"We are fortunate to have someone with Mr. Marshall's skills and experience on-board to lead our next national campaign," said Cory Hann.
"His work with Mr. Scheer in the leadership race showed he understood one of the keys to winning a tough election was by presenting a positive Conservative vision for Canada, and clearly that is something Mr. Scheer embodies."
Reached Tuesday by CBC News, Marshall declined to comment.
Cutting Rebel ties
"He's not involved with The Rebel," said Hann.
Marshall's name has recently disappeared from the list of directors of Rebel News Media on the federal government's online registry of corporate information, though it was still there as recently as late September.
In an Aug. 17 article, Marshall told Maclean's that he was "in the process" of severing ties with The Rebel, though he didn't provide a precise date for his departure, citing "some business issues that need to be resolved."
Well before that, in 2015, he told the National Observer, "I am not involved at all in the content production and editorial side of things. My involvement is on the business side."
The issue re-emerged this week when a Globe and Mail reporter asked Scheer whether he was aware that Marshall had worked out of The Rebel offices during Scheer's leadership run.
"I didn't ask Hamish about every client he had," said Scheer, before ending the media availability session.
'Hamish helps clients win'
For Scheer, the appeal of reaching out to Marshall seems obvious. They've known each other for years, and started out as political keeners on Parliament Hill about the same time.
While Scheer ran for office and eventually became Speaker, Marshall worked as manager of strategic planning to Prime Minister Stephen Harper. During the 2008 election campaign, where the Conservatives increased their seat count but still fell shy of a majority government, Marshall was the campaign pollster.
During the leadership race, Scheer and Marshall teamed up to run a campaign based on keeping the party united and not straying too far from the Harper orthodoxy on policy.
The campaign made a series of targeted pitches, like tax relief for families who homeschool their children. In another pledge, he said he would "prioritize real refugees" by standing up for persecuted Christian minorities in a way the campaign said the Liberals had failed to do.
Scheer also pledged to pull federal grant funding from universities that didn't defend free speech, though he has since said that wouldn't apply to "extreme examples" like white nationalist rallies.
Oxford-educated Marshall describes himself online as "a strategist, pollster and demographic expert who tells stories with numbers." Another bio puts it more succinctly: "Hamish helps clients win."
After he helped Scheer win, Marshall didn't join him in the Opposition leader's office. Instead, Marshall has worked on Brian Jean's campaign to lead Alberta's new United Conservative Party.
Still, Marshall did attend the Conservative caucus retreat in Winnipeg last month, including a strategy session about winning the federal race in 2019. Now he will be the one tasked with making that aspiration a reality.
But in the party's statement, there is a nod to the scale of the challenge.
Hann notes that Marshall "has shown he thrives in underdog campaigns."
"In the Vancouver Translink referendum, he was able to win against an opposition that outspent him by millions, and had a sizable lead in the polls. He's had great success in campaigns both in Canada and abroad, such as Australia and the U.K., and we're incredibly excited to have him in this role."