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Why strategists say Leslyn Lewis makes the Conservative leadership race unpredictable

Leslyn Lewis may not have the same profile or House of Commons experience as the perceived front-runners Peter MacKay and Erin O'Toole, but three Tory strategists say she's the one to watch as party members mail in their ballots. 

Party picks new leader this month and novice candidate could upset some predictions

Conservative Party of Canada leadership candidate Leslyn Lewis makes her opening statement at the start of the French leadership debate in Toronto on June 17. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

Leslyn Lewis is a Toronto lawyer and a political novice. She's also the wildcard candidate that strategists say could upset many predictions about the outcome of the Conservative Party leadership race. 

Lewis may not have the same profile or House of Commons experience as the perceived front-runners Peter MacKay and Erin O'Toole, but three Tory strategists say she's the one to watch as party members mail in their ballots. 

"I think she's a big factor," Jenni Byrne, former advisor to prime minister Stephen Harper and founder of Jenni Byrne and Associates, told CBC's West of Centre podcast

"I think that the surge of Leslyn Lewis has changed the dynamic of this leadership race."

Lewis has raised $996,000 this quarter, behind O'Toole's $1.24 million and MacKay's $1.16 million — but she has attracted more individual donors than the three other candidates. She was backed by 10,000 contributors, compared with 8,900 for O'Toole and 6,800 for MacKay. 

Is it enough to leapfrog her over the others? Byrne isn't sure but said it's clear the other contestants are starting to register Lewis as dangerous. She's grown from a practically unknown entity to a threat, and even in the wake of less-than-ideal debate performances, she likes her own odds. 

"I feel that we have a very strong chance of winning," Lewis told Power & Politics earlier this week. 

Bridging divides and moving forward

Parts of her approach seem to fill crevasses that the party has historically split down like social issues or environmental policy — she identifies as a social conservative and has a masters in environmental studies. 

Ken Boessenkool, a research fellow at the C.D. Howe Institute and former adviser to Harper, called her a "sophisticated and smart voice" for social conservatives who may be put off by the intense rhetoric of candidate Derek Sloan. He added she may be just as enticing to those who don't want a long-time politician at the helm. 

Byrne agreed.

"She is a breath of fresh air. She's a different candidate. She's not Erin, she's not Peter." 

Dennis Matthews, a strategist with Enterprise Canada and a former adviser to Harper, mused that Lewis might signal a new opportunity for Conservatives who want to reshape party policy. 

"They (MacKay and O'Toole) are still very much out of the Harper mould of what the party has looked and sounded like for the last 10, 15, almost 20 years now," he said. "[Voters] may not even agree with her on the social conservative issues but they're saying 'hey, you're something different.'"

There were few fiery exchanges in the first English-language debate between the Conservative Party leadership hopefuls on Thursday, even during hot-button issues like tackling racism. Peter MacKay and Erin O'Toole remain the clear front-runners with Derek Sloan and Leslyn Lewis as potential kingmakers.  3:18

The three strategists agreed the leadership candidates need to seriously think about what platform Conservatives will offer in the next general election, how to attract voters beyond the typical base and how to advertise policies that will boost the odds of a Tory once again occupying the Prime Minister's Office. 

But the first task is selecting a new captain, though none of the three wanted to make a definitive prediction. Each said if Lewis places high on the first ballot, all bets are off. 

Lewis has 'that secret sauce'

The leadership race will be decided with ranked ballots, allowing party members to order the candidates as first, second, third or fourth choices.

Boessenkool said if Lewis takes second place in the first round, there's a chance she could go on to win the leadership on a subsequent ballot. 

If Lewis doesn't win, the strategists said the successful candidate will want to keep her close by. 

"She's obviously got a little bit of that secret sauce, so how do you find a way to make sure it's part of the mix going forward? Because you know she's caught on to something," Matthews said. 

Lewis also has appeal in western provinces, including Alberta. Many of her endorsements are from western politicians, both past and present. She also hasn't shied away from talking about alienation or separatist movements, though she supports the federation. 

Whoever the leader is, Boessenkool said Premier Jason Kenney will be a prominent part of the party going forward. 

"The most important MP in caucus will be Jason Kenney, even though he's not in the caucus," he said, adding the federal party will pay a lot of attention to how Kenney deals with sentiments of western separation. 

Boessenkool also said he thinks Kenney will support whoever is elected, even if it's not his first choice of O'Toole. 

The party leadership committee will announce the winner at the end of August. 

With files from The Canadian Press

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