Quebec is up for grabs in the Conservative leadership race — and it's a prize worth grabbing

With Jean Charest out of the running, Quebec is wide open for the other candidates in the Conservative leadership race.

The province's 78 ridings can offer candidates a lot of bang for their buck

On Tuesday, former Quebec premier Jean Charest told Radio-Canada he would not run for the federal Conservative leadership. Who can fill the contest's vacuum in Quebec? (Adrian Wyld / Canadian Press)

Jean Charest is out — which means Quebec is wide open in the Conservative leadership race.

And with every member's vote in the province likely to carry a disproportionate weight, it's a vacant playing field that every candidate will want to occupy.

The roster of contestants for the Conservative leadership is far from final. But the list of names it won't include is getting longer. On Wednesday, former Conservative interim leader Rona Ambrose ruled herself out. In an interview with Radio-Canada on Tuesday, Charest — the former Quebec premier and leader of the Progressive Conservatives in the 1990s — said he would not mount a bid for the leadership.

Charest likely would have had lots of appeal in Quebec, as well as the ability to sign up a significant number of new members there. But with Charest now ruling out a run, the race could end up with no candidate from Quebec among the top contenders.

The two Conservative MPs with the highest profiles in Quebec — Alain Rayes, Andrew Scheer's Quebec lieutenant, and Gérard Deltell, a former journalist and the last leader of the Action Démocratique du Québec (before it dissolved itself into Premier François Legault's Coalition Avenir Québec) — already have ruled themselves out.

Richard Décarie, a former deputy chief of staff to Stephen Harper, is working on a leadership bid as a social-conservative candidate. He's from Quebec — but the province's aversion to social conservatism will limit his appeal there. Pierre Lemieux and Brad Trost, two social conservative candidates, together took just nine per cent of the vote on the first ballot in Quebec in 2017's leadership race.

So Quebec could be a political vacuum that the other candidates have to fill. They would be wise to try — because Quebec's party members offer a lot of bang for the buck.

Quebec votes worth their weight in gold

All 338 ridings across the country carry equal weight in the Conservative leadership vote. Each riding is worth 100 points, and those points are distributed according to each candidate's share of the vote.

In other words, the candidate who wins 10 out of 20 votes in one riding ends up with the same amount of points as the candidate who landed 1,000 out of 2,000 votes in another riding. Ridings with lower numbers of party members offer candidates a chance to do a lot with a little.

The last leadership race offered a good illustration. Nearly 29,000 Conservative members living in Alberta cast a ballot in 2017 — an average of 848 members in each of Alberta's 34 ridings. In Quebec, meanwhile, there were just 9,669 voting members spread out across the province's 78 ridings — an average of 124 members per district.

Every vote in Alberta was worth an average of 0.12 points. Every vote in Quebec was worth 0.81 points — nearly seven times as much.

Even these numbers were skewed by the regions of Quebec that had a higher concentration of members, such as the West Island of Montreal or runner-up Maxime Bernier's Beauce riding; Beauce alone was responsible for over 1,000 votes. The 34 ridings in Quebec with the fewest members delivered a total of 1,600 votes in the 2017 leadership race — an average of 48 per riding. Each vote cast in those seats was worth over two points apiece.

He may or may not end up being the main beneficiary, but former cabinet minister Peter MacKay can take some credit for this voting system. It was one of the conditions of the merger that created the modern Conservative Party. MacKay, as leader of the Progressive Conservatives at the time, insisted on it — and he's defended it at party conventions ever since.

Who will be Quebec's candidate?

If MacKay does emerge as the winner, strong results in Quebec could prove to be decisive. The former Nova Scotia MP might not have as much support in places like rural Ontario and in Western Canada — where there are lots of Conservative Party members and where the old Reform Party and Canadian Alliance had significant support.

But it isn't clear yet which candidate is best positioned to become Quebec's top choice.

A recent survey by Abacus Data suggests that every candidate still has some way to go. The poll, conducted Jan. 16-17 with a sample of 302 respondents in Quebec, found that 46 per cent of respondents there did not know enough about MacKay to have an opinion.

That figure rose to 63 per cent for Ontario MP Pierre Poilievre and 72 per cent for both 2017's third-place finisher Erin O'Toole and fellow Ontario MP Marilyn Gladu.

About 13 per cent of Quebecers said they had a positive impression of MacKay, compared to 11 per cent who had a negative one. That split was six to eight per cent for Poilievre and five to three per cent for O'Toole. Considering the small sample size, this suggests no one is likely to have the inside track in Quebec from the get-go.

An Abacus Data poll suggested that Peter MacKay is the best known of the potential candidates in Quebec. Still, nearly half of respondents didn't know enough about him to have an opinion. (The Canadian Press)

The endorsement of Quebec's 10 Conservative MPs will be highly coveted. They did appear to make a difference in 2017, with those of Rayes and Deltell being among the most valuable.

Winning Quebec won't be important just for the contestants in this leadership race — it also will likely be a major factor in determining the eventual winner's chances of becoming the next prime minister. Conservative support in Quebec collapsed after Scheer's poor performance in the first of two French-language debates in October's federal election campaign, significantly reducing the party's chances of forming government.

Conservative members motivated by a desire to avoid a third consecutive loss likely will be asking themselves which of the contenders can make the most gains in Quebec. Charest showed some promise on that score. The candidate Quebecers settle on as their next best option will have a leg-up on the competition.


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.

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