Kevin O'Leary's Conservative leadership bid should target 'eager' millennials, advisers say

The team formed by Kevin O'Leary to explore a potential bid for the leadership of the Conservative Party has reported back urging him to run — and to target supporters that are different from the party's perceived base.

Unilingual TV commentator to 'abstain' from next Tuesday's official French debate 'out of respect'

Businessman and TV personality Kevin O'Leary has been flirting with a run for the federal Conservative leadership since last spring. But months into the race, he still hasn't filed his papers. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

The team formed by Kevin O'Leary to explore a potential bid for the leadership of the Conservative Party of Canada has reported back, urging him to run.

While that may not be a surprise, the supporters that the businessman and TV personality is being advised to target represents a departure from the party's perceived base: millennials.

"There is a clear path to victory for you to win," said Mike Coates, chair of O'Leary's exploratory committee, in a letter released Thursday that describes O'Leary's ability to recruit new members, finance a campaign and attract existing party members to his candidacy.

"We were particularly surprised by the high levels of support from those in the 18 to 24 age groups," the veteran Conservative organizer wrote. "This is an important voter group for the Conservative Party of Canada, and their passion for your candidacy is promising.

"Your many fans are eager to support you and will join the party to do so," Coates' letter said, adding that a "vast number" of existing party members would also support him, because he offers "the most compelling chance at winning the next election."

Coates chaired the nine-member exploratory committee that included former Ontario premier Mike Harris and retired senator Marjory LeBreton, as well as former MPs, staffers and party activists.

The Conservative Party has traditionally polled much stronger among older Canadians than young voters.

When I do something, I bring my A game, and I don't like wasting anyone's time.- Kevin O'Leary

The party's grassroots party members — which may be changing as 13 leadership campaigns sign up new supporters — have also traditionally skewed older than the Canadian population in general.

But the party's convention in Vancouver last May was noticeably younger and featured what the party said was a record number of youth delegates.

At the Conservative caucus retreat in Halifax last September, a pollster spoke to MPs about what Conservatives need to do to reach millennial voters — loosely defined as those reaching adulthood early in the 21st century — who are pegged as having different values and priorities than previous generations.

O'Leary's exploratory committee's advice appears consistent with that growth strategy. 

And it differs from the leadership campaigns being pursued by other candidates in the race, who are pitching positions more closely associated with a socially conservative or immigration-skeptic base of support.

Thursday's statement also sought to explain why O'Leary isn't joining the race in time for the French debate taking place next Tuesday in Quebec City. No translation will be provided, making it difficult for any contender who does not speak the language reasonably well.

There were 14 candidates on stage for the party's last official debate in Moncton, N.B. in December, including Michael Chong, left, Erin O'Toole, centre, and Andrew Scheer. While candidates spoke some French then, next Tuesday's debate in Quebec City will be entirely in French. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

Because the Conservative leadership race will be decided based on a system that balances votes across all of Canada's 338 ridings, appealing to French-speaking voters, particularly from the 78 constituencies in Quebec, really counts.

"When I do something, I bring my A game and I don't like wasting anyone's time," O'Leary said in the statement.

While he attended the first party-organized debate in Saskatoon — and sat right behind the moderator, putting himself frequently in a camera shot — he's expressed distaste for the large number of candidates still crowding the race and the inability of debate formats to showcase would-be leaders in detail.

O'Leary, who grew up in Montreal, says he's committed to "learning French again." In the meantime, "out of respect for Quebec and French-Canadians, I feel it makes more sense to abstain from the French debate until I am more proficient."

O'Leary must file his papers and deposit by Feb. 24 in order to be a candidate in the May 27 vote.

Scheer wins more endorsements before debate

Andrew Scheer held a news conference Thursday in Quebec City to announce that four Conservative MPs — Luc Berthold, Alain Rayes, Pierre Paul-Hus and Sylvie Boucher — are now supporting his bid.

The former Speaker of the House of Commons, who represents a Saskatchewan riding but grew up in Ottawa, speaks serviceable French with a proficiency he credits to his French-immersion education.

Andrew Scheer, who was joined by his wife, Jill, as he launched his campaign last September, has received more endorsements from sitting Conservative MPs than any other candidate so far. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Scheer now has the most endorsements from current Conservative MPs, with 23, representing every province where the party holds a seat.

Fellow Conservative MP Erin O'Toole also announced an endorsement Thursday from a former rival. Winnipeg doctor Dan Lindsay was a leadership candidate until a few weeks ago, participating in the first two debates before withdrawing prior to a Dec.31 deadline for paying the required $50,000 compliance deposit.

Lindsay has worked with O'Toole on his health care reform platform.

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