Leslyn Lewis shaping up to be the story of the Conservative leadership race

Several key factors are driving the success of this relative newcomer to Conservative Party, writes Kory Teneycke.

Several key factors driving success of relative newcomer to Conservative Party

Leslyn Lewis withdrew from Wednesday's debate because she is battling an ear infection and has a fever, though she has tested negative for COVID-19. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

This column is an opinion by Kory Teneycke. A former director of communications for prime minister Stephen Harper, he managed the recent Ontario PC Party Campaign and is currently a partner at Rubicon Strategy. Teneycke has declared he will remain neutral in the federal Conservative leadership campaign and has recused himself from work Rubicon is providing for the Peter MacKay campaign. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

I'll give you a sneak preview of "How I spent my summer" – in Saskatchewan. It has been a great opportunity, spending time reconnecting with my roots and with opinions not born in the Ottawa bubble. Anecdotal observations may not be scientific, but they have inspired me to make a few predictions going into the final weeks of the Conservative leadership campaign.

The first is that Leslyn Lewis is going to do very well.

I believe she will finish in second place overall and will win more votes in Saskatchewan than any other leadership candidate.

I say that because you find Lewis supporters everywhere here, and most of them are not particularly socially conservative. Without betraying confidences, many of them are very well established in the ruling provincial Saskatchewan Party – which is by far the most potent political organization in the province.

There is also a surge of unlikely urban support for Lewis outside the province.

Similar to Saskatchewan, much of it comes from party members who are often quite hostile to traditional social conservatives. I have spoken with urban, professional women and LGBTQ friends in the Conservative Party – all in the Greater Toronto Area – who are comfortable with Lewis's brand of conservatism, even if their first ballot support rests with another candidate.

Money has been surging as well.

Macleans magazine recently reported that fundraising for the Lewis campaign had crossed $1.2 million. A few short weeks later, the total for Lewis is approaching $1.7 million, according to her campaign team. That's close to what Maxime Bernier raised in the last leadership race, and would have ranked her as one of the best funded candidates in that race. It is a very noteworthy accomplishment.

Lewis doesn’t predominantly focus on social issues, but rather has pushed forward proposals across a broad range of policy areas. (Tijana Martin/Canadian Press)

So what is driving the success of this previously unknown candidate and relative newcomer to the Conservative Party?

While Lewis is a social conservative, her positions have nuance and sophistication. She frames her pro-life views around gender-selective abortion – the appalling practice of having an abortion based on the sex of the fetus, usually to terminate the pregnancy of unborn girls.

And unlike some social conservative candidates in the past, Lewis doesn't predominantly focus on social issues, but rather has pushed forward proposals across a broad range of policy areas. This race has often lacked much when it comes to policy innovation, and it's something any party rebuilding needs.

Lewis has been willing to come up with a broad range of policies. Her background includes a Masters degree in Environmental Studies, and she has put together a credible plan for Energy and the Environment that isn't just about opposing a carbon tax (which she does).

Members are excited to support an urban, well educated, professionally accomplished, Black woman as a candidate, in part because it counters the public perception (held with some cause) that the party is too rural, too male and too white. Would conservatives do better at the ballot box having more women in leadership roles? Absolutely.

From left: Conservative Party of Canada leadership candidates Derek Sloan, Erin O'Toole, Peter MacKay and Leslyn Lewis are seen at an English-language debate in Toronto on June 18. (Tijana Martin/The Canadian Press)

Another factor is the lack of enthusiasm for the two perceived front runners, Peter MacKay and Erin O'Toole.

As widely recognized, the historic differences between the two are nuanced at best. O'Toole spent most of the campaign marketing himself as a "True Blue" conservative – successfully attracting support, particularly in Western Canada among members from the Reform side of the party. The problem for O'Toole is the marketing pitch that he is a hardcore conservative doesn't really withstand much scrutiny.

The Lewis campaign has seen the same trend nationally that I have observed here in Saskatchewan, with many of her new supporters coming at the expense of the O'Toole campaign. They just didn't think he was conservative enough on issues like his carbon pricing proposal (often characterized as a carbon tax by opponents).

So how does this all play out?

I share the commonly held view that the MacKay campaign will be in the lead after the first ballot. Derek Sloan will fall off the ballot, with most of his support going to Leslyn Lewis. This could push her past O'Toole.

Or even more interesting, if the quiet momentum that has been building for the past weeks is strong enough, Lewis could be in second place already – before adding Sloan's votes.

If that is the case, there is a narrow path to victory for Lewis. If enough O'Toole supporters choose Lewis over MacKay as a second choice, we could have an electoral upset of historic proportions.


Kory Teneycke is a former director of communications for prime minister Stephen Harper. He managed the recent Ontario PC Party Campaign, and is a partner at Rubicon Strategy.