The Conservative leadership race keeps on rolling — and MacKay is still in the driver's seat

Four candidates will be on the ballot for the Conservative leadership now that the last deadline to qualify has come and gone.

Peter MacKay, Erin O'Toole, Leslyn Lewis and Derek Sloan qualify to be on the ballot for the party leadership

Conservative leadership candidate Peter MacKay leads his closest rival in caucus endorsements, Ontario MP Erin O'Toole, by a margin of three-to-one. (Andrew Vaughan / Canadian Press)

Though two candidates have called for the campaign to be suspended because of the COVID-19 outbreak, the list of those vying for the leadership of the Conservative Party of Canada was whittled down to four as the deadline to qualify came and went on Wednesday.

Peter MacKay, Erin O'Toole, Leslyn Lewis and Derek Sloan will be on the ballot for the party's top job, assuming the race ends on schedule on June 27.

Whether it will or not remains a significant point of contention between the contestants. O'Toole and Sloan, who both represent Ontario ridings in the House of Commons, have urged the party to delay the leadership vote so that all efforts can be directed toward the fight against the pandemic.

Lewis, a lawyer who ran for the party in a Toronto-area riding in 2015, does not support a change to the calendar. MacKay, a former cabinet minister and the last leader of the Progressive Conservative Party, has instead suggested the date should be moved forward.

Regardless of when the vote does take place — and the party appears determined not to change the date — MacKay is still widely seen as the favourite. He was the first to meet the eligibility requirements by raising $300,000 and gathering signatures from 3,000 members across the country. He was then followed by O'Toole, Lewis and Sloan.

Four other candidates failed to qualify after meeting the initial entry fee and signature requirements. Rick Peterson, Rudy Husny and Marilyn Gladu did not meet the final eligibility thresholds (Peterson and Husny halted their campaigns over the decision not to delay the vote) while Jim Karahalios was disqualified. (The party has not said publicly why it dropped Karahalios from the race, but he has been the target of complaints — several of them over his claim that O'Toole's campaign chair wanted to bring "Sharia law" to Canada. He is taking the party to court.)

MacKay continues to lead in caucus endorsements

Judging by his backing from within the Conservative caucus, the race appears to be MacKay's to lose. A tally by CBC News puts him well ahead with 33 endorsements from Conservative MPs, compared to just 11 for O'Toole.

Both Sloan and Lewis have yet to receive the public endorsement of a sitting MP.

MacKay's advantage in endorsements is spread out across the country, with four MPs from British Columbia, nine from Alberta, three from Saskatchewan and Manitoba, 12 from Ontario, four from Quebec and one in Atlantic Canada.

O'Toole has only two backers from B.C., four from Alberta, two from the Prairies and three from Ontario. No sitting MP from Quebec or Atlantic Canada has endorsed O'Toole so far.

Ontario MP Erin O'Toole is running for the Conservative Party leadership for the second time after finishing third in the party's 2017 leadership race. (Andrew Vaughan / Canadian Press)

Outside of caucus, however, O'Toole did land the most high-profile endorsement of the race — that of Alberta Premier Jason Kenney.

MacKay does have some prominent people backing him from outside the federal Conservative caucus, including Ontario cabinet minister Caroline Mulroney and Nova Scotia Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Houston — but no one with Kenney's long track record within the party.

However, eight of MacKay's endorsers supported O'Toole during the 2017 Conservative leadership race. Only two of O'Toole's 11 caucus endorsers are backing him a second time.

MacKay also has more endorsements than O'Toole from MPs who supported Andrew Scheer, Lisa Raitt, Maxime Bernier and Kellie Leitch in 2017 — an indication that MacKay is attracting support from across the party's ideological spectrum.

MacKay has raised more than $1 million already

We won't get a detailed look at each candidate's fundraising until Apr. 30, when Elections Canada is expected to publish first quarter financial returns. But MacKay announced in early March that he had raised $1 million — a colossal sum in just five weeks.

That early fundraising blitz is likely to offer a big advantage to MacKay, since it supplied him a full war chest before fundraising activity slowed as the COVID-19 pandemic spread.

Ad spending disclosed by Facebook gives us an idea of how this advantage is being put to use. The figures show MacKay outspending O'Toole in Facebook advertising by a margin of more than two-to-one, at $116,000 to $46,000.

Facebook does not show any money being spent on ads by Sloan or Lewis. According to Lewis's campaign, however, she has so far received more than 2,100 individual donations and raised her $300,000 entry fee in only a few weeks.

Social conservative vote could be decisive

One big factor in this contest is the social conservative vote. It is an electorate that O'Toole has courted, particularly after MacKay was criticized for his post-election comment that Scheer's social conservative views were a "stinking albatross" that hurt the party's chances in the last election.

The social conservative vote is likely to be split between Sloan and Lewis, who have both received the endorsement of the Campaign Life Coalition, an anti-abortion group. Brad Trost, who finished fourth in the 2017 leadership race on an explicitly social conservative platform, has backed them as well.

Leslyn Lewis is running for the Conservative leadership. She ran as a candidate for the party in a Toronto-area riding in the 2015 federal election. (Greg Bruce/CBC News)

Trost and Pierre Lemieux, another social conservative candidate, combined for a little less than 16 per cent of the vote in the 2017 race. It turned out to be a decisive chunk of the membership in a ranked ballot. Scheer received the lion's share of that support when Trost was eliminated in the 11th round. Without that backing, Bernier would have defeated him.

But if the social conservative vote remains somewhere around 16 per cent, it might not be enough to block MacKay. With only four candidates on the ballot, and if Sloan and Lewis combine for that amount of the vote, then O'Toole would need to win more than 34 per cent to prevent a first-ballot victory by MacKay.

A first-term Ontario MP, Derek Sloan qualified for the Conservative Party leadership race and is one of two socially conservative candidates in the running. (Justin Tang / Canadian Press)

That's a big number for a candidate who finished with just 21 per cent of the vote on the penultimate ballot in 2017. And if the social conservative vote is larger than it was last time, then O'Toole runs the risk of being overtaken as that vote coalesces behind one of the two socially conservative candidates.

This race isn't like 2017 — and not just because of COVID-19

But this race is not like the last one. The ideological divisions aren't the same. Bernier ran on a libertarian platform while Scheer posed as the status quo candidate. Neither MacKay nor O'Toole are proposing as radical a shift in Conservative policy as Bernier did.

The regional divisions are different, too. There is no candidate from Western Canada or Quebec — O'Toole, Sloan and Lewis are from Ontario, MacKay is a Nova Scotian — and there is no candidate that speaks French with complete fluency.

And then there's the shadow being cast by the novel coronavirus. It severely limits every candidate's ability to raise money, sign up new members and campaign. This might favour an establishment front runner like MacKay.

It's also hard to predict how the positions taken by each candidate on the pandemic — and on when the leadership vote should be held — will resonate among existing members.

Three months is a long time in politics. It's an even longer time in a pandemic. The dynamics of this race could shift dramatically between now and June — if it does indeed go ahead. But MacKay has been the front runner since he threw his hat in the ring. There's no reason to believe he is close to losing that title.


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.