The Current

O'Toole needs social conservative votes, but can't 'pander' to extreme views on race, abortion: strategist

Conservative strategist Melissa Caouette says new leader O'Toole will need to stop the party he now leads being identified with extreme views on "things such as racism, such as abortion, such as very, very far-right social issues."

Erin O'Toole elected leader of Conservative Party of Canada in the early hours of Monday

Conservative Party of Canada Leader Erin O'Toole speaks after his win at the 2020 leadership election, in Ottawa in the early hours of Monday morning. (Sean Kilpatrick/Reuters)

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Newly elected Conservative leader Erin O'Toole faces a challenge in balancing the grassroots support of his base, and stopping more extreme social conservative views from turning off potential voters, says one Conservative strategist.

"We could go to an election at any time and it's been proven that those values don't necessarily hold up in areas where we need to gain back support, such as downtown Toronto, such as in Quebec," said Melissa Caouette, vice-president of business development and government strategy for the Canadian Strategy Group.

She said O'Toole will need to exert "very strict caucus discipline" to stop the party he now leads being identified with extreme views on "things such as racism, such as abortion, such as very, very far-right social issues." 

"I think that he has to come in right away, and make that clear, and make it known that spouting those kinds of things on the cusp of an election is not going to be appropriate," she told The Current's guest host Catherine Cullen.

"We can have those internal conversations and make sure that there's a place for folks that have those views at the grassroots level. But there's not going to be room for those folks' views at the national level."

Erin O'Toole says he'll fight for Canadian families

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3 months agoVideo
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"To the Canadians I'm meeting for the first time. Good morning. I'm Erin O'Toole." O'Toole delivers first speech after winning Conservative leadership. 16:41

O'Toole was announced as the new leader of the Conservative Party of Canada in the early hours of Monday morning. He secured 57 per cent of the vote on the third and final ballot, compared to 43 per cent for Peter MacKay. 

His predecessor Andrew Scheer faced criticism during his tenure as leader for his stance on social conservative issues — as well as his refusal to march in Pride parades — but in his acceptance speech Monday morning, O'Toole made an appeal to all Canadians.

"I believe that whether you are Black, white, brown or from any race or creed, whether you are LGBT or straight, whether you are an Indigenous Canadian or have joined the Canadian family three weeks ago or three generations ago," he said.

"Whether you're doing well or barely getting by. Whether you worship on Friday, Saturday, Sunday or not at all … you are an important part of Canada and you have a home in the Conservative Party of Canada."

Social conservatives 'alive and well'

The remaining two contenders in the leadership race, Leslyn Lewis and Derek Sloan, had campaigned on social conservative platforms, but were eliminated in the second and first ballots, respectively.

At the third ballot, the bulk of support for the defeated Lewis went to O'Toole.

Candidate Leslyn Lewis was eliminated on the second ballot. Much of the social conservative's support transferred to O'Toole on the third ballot. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

Conservative strategist Shakir Chambers said the support for Lewis and Sloan was significant.

"Even if you look at the final vote tally in the first round, I mean, Leslyn Lewis and Derek Sloan had about 35 per cent of that vote — and they're declared social conservatives," said Chambers, a senior consultant at the public strategy and communications firm Navigator. 

"This shows that social conservatives are alive and well in our party, and going into leadership races, you have to make sure you pay attention to them and their issues."

During the campaign, Sloan made remarks that were criticized as homophobic and racist, but Caouette said he doesn't represent the majority of the Conservative party.

"We need for people like Derek Sloan to continue to vote for the Conservative Party, but we cannot pander to those voices," she said.

Candidate Derek Sloan faced criticism over comments he made during the campaign. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

Chambers said O'Toole faces a "struggle" to bridge that gap.

"How do you ensure you keep Albertans and those on the Prairies on your side, but at the same time speaking to those in Ontario and Quebec and ensure that you address their issues?" he said. 

He added that O'Toole will also want to appeal to Liberal voters unhappy with the performance of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's minority government, and who might want to switch their vote. 

"How do you rope that all into policy?" he asked. 

"It's not an easy job, but again, being a leader of the party shouldn't be an easy job."


Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Arianne Robinson, Sameer Chhabra, Samira Mohyeddin and Paul MacInnis.

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