How the Conservatives' leadership rules could limit the field this time

The criteria set by the Conservatives for 2020's leadership contest would have kept most of 2017's candidates out of the race.

Raising $300,000 in 10 weeks is no small feat — few candidates managed it in 2017

There were 14 names on the ballot in the 2017 Conservative leadership campaign. The rules set by the party for the 2020 race could limit that field considerably. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

After listing 14 names on the ballot during its last leadership race, the Conservative Party seems to be on track for a more intimate affair this time around.

The party has set the bar quite high for prospective candidates — so high that nearly all of 2017's contestants would have failed to qualify for the current race.

The leadership contest that chose Andrew Scheer in May 2017 was an unwieldy beast. Seventeen candidates put their names forward and 15 made it far enough to participate in at least one debate.

But that long list of contenders didn't mean members had a wealth of popular choices. Half of the 14 people on the ballot failed to secure even four per cent of the vote before they were eliminated. Three of them finished with less than one per cent.

Candidate Kellie Leitch holds up a rebuttal sign during the Conservative leadership debate at the Maclab Theatre in Edmonton, Alta., Feb. 28, 2017. (Codie McLachlan/Canadian Press)

The rules for entry in 2017 weren't particularly demanding. They required candidates to drum up $100,000 and 300 signatures from members in good standing — and gave them nearly a year to do it.

Not this time.

To be considered "verified candidates" in 2020, contestants will need to submit $300,000 to the party, including a $100,000 refundable compliance deposit. Candidates also will need to find 3,000 signatures from members living across the country. And they need to do it all by March 25 in order to get on the ballot for the June 27 vote.

That's a tight deadline — so tight that most of 2017's candidates wouldn't have made the cut.

The $300,000 question

Lots of money was raised during the last leadership race. Together, the contestants brought in over $10 million, with the Conservative Party's own coffers receiving 10 per cent of that total.

Nine contestants raised at least $300,000 each: Scheer, Maxime Bernier, Michael Chong, Kellie Leitch, Pierre Lemieux, Kevin O'Leary, Erin O'Toole, Lisa Raitt and Brad Trost. 

But it took them a long time to do it. This year's Conservative race officially started on Monday, giving prospective candidates just 72 days to raise enough money and find enough signatures to meet the party's qualifications.

That's not a lot of time. Starting from the date he accepted his first donation, O'Leary managed to raise $300,000 within 12 days. No other candidate raised that much money in their first 72 days.

The initial $25,000 is relatively easy — Elections Canada allows candidates to donate that much of their own money to their leadership campaign. But the rest has to be raised from individual donors giving no more than $1,625 apiece.

Putting the money together that way can take some time. Based on his performance in 2017, and taking into account the Conservative Party's tithe, it would have taken Scheer 120 days to hit the $300,000 threshold.

On average, it took contestants 143 days to raise their first $300,000 in the 2017 race — nearly twice as long as candidates will have in 2020.

There might have been less urgency in 2017 due to the length of the race — but even accounting for that, few candidates were able to raise so much money in so short a period of time. Only the top-three finishers — Scheer, Bernier and O'Toole — raised at least $300,000 in the last 72 days of the 2017 contest.

Members, members everywhere

All of this suggests that the new rules will limit the race to those candidates who have a profile high enough to raise a lot of money, and an organization strong enough to gather the needed signatures, in such a short amount of time.

Not only do candidates need to find 3,000 signatures, those names need to come from at least 30 different ridings across at least seven different provinces or territories.

That requires a national organization, but it also gives an advantage to candidates whose base is where a lot of party members live. Technically, a qualifying candidate could gather 2,971 signatures from a single riding as long as the other 29 come from 29 different ridings spread across the country.

Some 65,000 Conservative Party members living in Ontario voted in the 2017 leadership race, along with about 29,000 in Alberta and 19,000 in British Columbia.

But there were fewer than 10,000 voting members in Quebec at the time, and a little more than 6,000 in all of Atlantic Canada. While it's unlikely to be a major obstacle for the top tier of potential candidates, those with only limited local profiles may struggle to collect the signatures they need to get into the race.

Ontario MPs Erin O'Toole (left) and Pierre Poilievre (right) are expected to join the Conservative leadership race. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

None of this is likely to prove an insurmountable challenge to high-profile people like Jean Charest, Peter MacKay or Rona Ambrose if they decide to run. Nor is it likely to be much of a hurdle for potential candidates like O'Toole or Pierre Poilievre, who are well-known within the Conservative Party even if they aren't household names.

But the lower-profile candidates — the obscure businesspeople, the unknown backbenchers, the former MPs desperate to make a comeback — might be scarce this time around.

The rules already may be having an effect. 

CBC News has learned Bryan Brulotte, a veteran political organizer and businessman who was the first to publicly declare his intention to seek the leadership in December, has decided to drop out and is advocating for former Conservative cabinet minister Peter MacKay to run instead.

"Although my desire was to serve and continues to be a motivating factor, after careful consideration and review of the recently published regulations, I have decided to withdraw from the leadership race for the Conservative Party," Brulotte said in a press release shared with CBC News.

Who's running - and who's not - for the leadership of the Conservative Party of Canada. (CBC News)


Éric Grenier

Politics and polls

Éric Grenier is a senior writer and the CBC's polls analyst. He was the founder of ThreeHundredEight.com and has written for The Globe and Mail, Huffington Post Canada, The Hill Times, Le Devoir, and L’actualité.

with files from Hannah Thibedeau

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