As Conservative leadership vote nears, party looks for candidate with vision to beat Trudeau
'We need to have a comprehensive, coherent vision of what the party stands for,' strategist says
Today is the last day to vote in the Conservative leadership race and pollsters say the party needs a leader who can articulate a clear vision for the country, appealing to a diverse cross section of voters ahead of the next general election.
"For those who don't vote Conservative, the party struggles. (It's) seen as old traditional, close-minded, some even described it as racist," said David Coletto, CEO of Abacus Data. "So you get this image of a brand ... that isn't really relevant for many Canadians today and seems kind of part of the past."
To shake off an unfavourable image held by some voters, Conservative strategists say the party needs to do a better job of talking about what it does today — and what it will do tomorrow.
"The Liberal Party is going to put forth their vision whether it's in the throne speech or whether we get to the general election," said Conservative strategist Shakir Chambers. "They're going to have their agenda and we can't just, as a party, focus on micro targeting tax credits or having tax cuts."
"We need to have a comprehensive, coherent vision of what the party stands for; how we address the issues that are facing Canadians; how we ensure there are opportunities for the future whether you're a woman, whether you're racialized," he said.
Conservative strategist Melissa Lantsman told CBC News that the first priority for the winner of Sunday's leadership contest will be to ensure the party stays united.
"There's a huge opportunity here for whoever is the next Conservative leader and that's to talk about a vision, a new direction for Canada," said Lantsman. "It doesn't look like the Liberals are doing all that well and this provides an opportunity for a pedestal to do better."
An ideological home
While the Conservative brand may be struggling for direction among some voters, Coletto said the Tories won more votes than any other party in the last election, proving that large numbers of Canadians consider the party their ideological home.
"To get to that next level, they need to appeal to more people who, on many issues, have moved farther from the Conservatives," Coletto said. "Issues like climate change, issues around racial equality and gender equality, on the role of government — particularly in the midst of a pandemic."
Watch | Profile of Conservative leadership candidate Peter MacKay:
While the realities of the pandemic have made this leadership contest lower key than past campaigns — knocking on doors and kissing babies for now are things of the past — Lantsman says party members are still thoroughly engaged.
More than 150,000 votes have already been cast making it the highest turnout for the election of a federal party leader in Canadian history.
Watch | Profile of Conservative leadership candidate Erin O'Toole:
"There's reasonable interest because it's likely that the leader of the Conservative Party has a very good chance of being prime minister of Canada," she said. "So Conservatives are interested, they're engaged, and they're paying attention to politics."
And one of the candidates they are paying attention to is Leslyn Lewis. Born in Jamaica, Lewis immigrated to Canada as a child. A lawyer with a PhD in law and a master's degree in environmental studies, Lewis is an unapologetic social conservative unwilling to hide her personal convictions.
"The voter coalition includes both social conservative issues and it includes a vision and a direction going forward to expand the base of voters into millennials, into urbanites, that may or may not agree with the social conservative vision that Leslyn Lewis put forward," said Lantsman.
What sets Lewis apart, Lantsman said, is that she has turned the discussion about social issues into "a respectful conversation and a thoughtful one."
Lewis' delivery has been compared with the other social conservative in the race, Ontario's Derek Sloan, who has been criticized for being more divisive.
Watch | Profile of Conservative leadership candidate Leslyn Lewis:
Chambers says Lewis comes across as authentic because she is not trying to be anything she is not.
"She said who she was, she stated her positions very clearly," he said. "So I think for her, while her race is her factor, we can't take away from the fact that she has run a very good race and she has made herself very clear about where she stands."
If Lewis' candidacy has helped to broaden interest in the Conservative Party to some minorities and women, the next leader still needs to increase the party's appeal with young people.
Watch | How the Conservatives handled 150,000 mail-in ballots:
"The party hasn't tried to appeal to the next generation of voters," said Coletto.
"Whoever gets elected ... needs to think about what does it mean to be a Conservative in 2020? And have a vision for the country that is now coming out of this pandemic."
To an extent all politicians are starting from the same place, crafting a vision for how the country will move through this pandemic and into the future.
"What does a Conservative recovery look like will a go long way towards positioning them for success in the future," Coletto said.
Watch | Profile of Conservative leadership candidate Derek Sloan:
CBC News will have special coverage of the Conservative leadership race results on Sunday Aug. 23 on cbc.ca, CBC Television and CBC News Network starting at 5 p.m. ET, and on CBC Radio One starting at 6:30 p.m. ET.