The eye-popping number that bears watching in what has been a sleepy Conservative leadership race: Chris Hall

With the Conservative leadership race entering its final 10 days, the party is vowing to hold a secure and transparent mail-in ballot-counting process amid the pandemic, while also keeping up the pressure in Parliament on Justin Trudeau's minority government over the WE controversy. 

Record membership seen as sign of engagement, despite low-key race

Candidates for the Conservative leadership clockwise from top left: Erin O'Toole, Leslyn Lewis, Derek Sloan and Peter MacKay. The candidate to replace Andrew Scheer will be chosen entirely by mail-in ballot. (Photos Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

Lisa Raitt has one message for Conservative members as she looks at the still unopened party leadership ballot on her own desk.

"Get them in the mail," she says. "They have to be in our hands by Aug.  21. Not postmarked before then, but in our hands, or they won't be counted."

With the Conservative leadership race entering its final 10 days, the party is vowing to hold a secure and transparent ballot-counting process amid the pandemic, while also keeping up the pressure in Parliament on Justin Trudeau's minority government over the WE controversy. 

Raitt — the former cabinet minister, a former leadership candidate herself three years ago and now co-chair of this leadership race staged against a backdrop of the pandemic and a prolonged economic shutdown — is consumed by logistics.

She insists that despite the pandemic, the race went better than anyone could expect. The June convention had to be cancelled. Debates were organized while most of the country remained in lockdown. 

"We've got more members than ever," she says. "The four candidates sold 100,000 new memberships in the campaign."

Raitt's focus now is on ensuring ballots are counted quickly, safely and transparently to avoid challenges or debate over the legitimacy of the results.

Lisa Raitt, co-chair of the Conservative leadership race, says the race went better than anyone could expect, despite being held during the coronavirus pandemic. (Fred Chartrand/The Canadian Press)

The party set up a website open to anyone who wants to watch party officials handle the incoming ballots. With physical-distancing restrictions still in place, the party's had to rent three floors of an Ottawa office building.

Sealed grey boxes containing ballots that have been processed are stacked high in one locked room. All of it under constant video surveillance until the actual votes are counted once the Aug. 21 deadline passes.

"My job is to ensure a well-audited, well-oiled transparent system," Raitt says. "If we do that well, then that is the first step to ensure party unity."

Unity can never be taken for granted in a leadership race. And as outgoing party leader Andrew Scheer learned after his 12th-ballot, come-from-behind win by a single percentage point over Maxime Bernier three years ago, it can't be taken for granted even after you win.

Scheer won more seats in the last election than his predecessor, Stephen Harper, had. The Liberals under Justin Trudeau were reduced to a minority after just one term in office. But he couldn't silence critics inside his own party who felt the election should have been won, that he and his platform failed to appeal to voters in Ontario and Quebec.

He finally stepped aside in December after it was learned party funds were being used to pay for his children's private school education.

Little buzz during pandemic

But what sort of party do the four people vying to replace him stand to inherit? 

This is the party's second leadership race in three years. Thirteen people wanted the job in 2017. This time, only four are on the ballot: Peter MacKay, Erin O'Toole, Leslyn Lewis and Derek Sloan.

Former cabinet ministers with high name recognition like Rona Ambrose and John Baird chose not to run, while MPs like Pierre Poilievre and Gerard Deltell also chose to sit out.

The Liberals continue to hold the lead in public opinion polls despite the WE scandal. The CBC Poll Tracker still shows the Conservatives with less support today than they did in the last election.

And the race garnered little media or public attention as COVID-19 swept across the country.

Chad Rogers insists none of that matters.

"Conservatives are engaged," says Rogers, a long-time party strategist and co-founder of the public affairs company Crestview Strategy. 

"Look at the leading indicators. This party has the most members. It raised more money in the middle of the pandemic than it did in 2017. It formed the largest opposition in history in the last election. Don't tell me Conservatives aren't engaged."

Raitt notes that the four campaigns adapted, doing most of their outreach virtually because of the pandemic.

"This was a case of the grassroots organizing being done out of sight of the mainstream media which were focused on other things, as they should have been during a pandemic."

Expanding the party's appeal remains a crucial goal. 

The party's vote is over-represented in the Prairie provinces. It has a toe-hold in Atlantic Canada and Quebec. And those swing voters in the suburbs who propelled Stephen Harper to his one majority government in 2011, swung back to the Liberals in 2015 and mostly stayed there last year.

In the absence of a normal leadership race and the attendant publicity it generates, because of the pandemic, Scheer remained the face of the party.

He spoke to reporters Tuesday, in, likely, his last news conference as leader. His focus, as it has been for the past month, remained fixed on the WE scandal and what he insists are the repeated ethical lapses of the Trudeau government.

"Every day new details emerge that paint a concerning picture of corruption at the highest levels of government," he solemnly told reporters in advance of more parliamentary hearings into why WE got a sole-sourced contract to deliver a nearly billion-dollar program to pay student volunteers who help with the COVID-19 pandemic.

For Scheer and the Conservatives, there are worse things to focus on than "Us versus WE" as his replacement is chosen. It at least gives Scheer something of a parting gift to offer his successor when, as polls suggest, Trudeau is getting credit for his government's response to the pandemic.

Rogers says the new leader's first job is to make his or her name known beyond party circles and to begin work immediately rebuilding Stephen Harper's Conservative coalition, and cementing the policy alternative for the next election.

Like most Conservatives, Rogers insists Trudeau is vulnerable over his decision to run up a $348-billion deficit this year on emergency relief programs, and because of the ongoing ethics investigations. 

"The new leader isn't running against the Almighty," he said. "You're running against an incumbent."


Chris Hall

National Affairs Editor

Chris Hall is the CBC's National Affairs Editor and host of The House on CBC Radio, based in the Parliamentary Bureau in Ottawa. He began his reporting career with the Ottawa Citizen, before moving to CBC Radio in 1992, where he worked as a national radio reporter in Toronto, Halifax and St. John's. He returned to Ottawa and the Hill in 1998. Follow him on Twitter: @chrishallcbc


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