It’s finally here.
The Conservative Party of Canada will announce its next leader in Ottawa tonight, after candidates and supporters spent the past seven months on its third leadership contest in six years.
As candidates wait at the finish line, party members have their eyes not only on who will win, but also on the margin of victory.
Expectations are high for veteran Conservative Pierre Poilievre, who ran a populist campaign around the theme of “freedom” in his bid to score the top prize.
Can he pull off a rare first-ballot win?
“I think he can,” said Garry Keller, a former Conservative staffer whose roles included working as chief of staff to Rona Ambrose, who served as the party’s interim leader after prime minister Stephen Harper stepped down.
Poilievre would be the first to do it since Harper, who won on the first ballot in 2004 in the party’s first leadership race.
Such a win would be good for party unity because it signals a clear direction, Keller said. “It’s all united behind one person.”
The party is using a points system to count up the more than 400,000 votes that were cast before Tuesday’s ballot deadline.
Candidates are assigned points based on what share of the vote they receive in each of Canada’s 338 electoral ridings. Whoever scores more than 50 per cent of the points wins.
It also uses a ranked ballot, meaning members mark their preferred choice for leader from first to last.
If there’s no clear winner the first time ballots are counted, the candidate who receives the least support is eliminated, and the votes they received from supporters who picked them first transfer to the candidates those members picked second.
In 2020, it took three rounds of counting for former leader Erin O’Toole to cross the winning threshold.
In 2017’s crowded race, Andrew Scheer only eked out a victory against presumed front-runner Maxime Bernier on the 13th ballot.
But things are different now.
Poilievre is facing off against only four other candidates, and throughout the race has been attracting crowds by the thousands with his stances against inflation, COVID-19 vaccine mandates and all things Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
He used that momentum to sell a whopping 300,000 memberships, his campaign said, and leveraged a social media following he spent years amassing to reach supporters and collect data.
Out of the party’s 118 other members of Parliament, 62 are backing him.
In recent weeks, Poilievre’s campaign has turned its focus to aggressively making sure that those who signed up to vote for him actually cast their ballots — part of an overall ethos of not taking anything for granted.
If they ever needed lessons on the importance of that, they needed only look at the fortunes of Bernier in 2017 and Peter MacKay in 2020, who were presumed front-runners when they ran for leader but lost in the end.
One of the key battlegrounds in this year’s contest is Quebec, where Poilievre’s main competition is the province’s former premier, Jean Charest.
Charest spent the contest reintroducing himself to a new generation of Conservatives after being out of federal politics for more than 20 years and leaving provincial office in 2012.
Charest’s campaign has said it believes he has enough support in Quebec, Ontario and Atlantic Canada to secure the points he needs to win, a victory the campaign admits would be narrow.
Another factor the Charest campaign is counting on is support from the party members brought in by another centrist candidate, Patrick Brown. The Brampton, Ont., mayor was disqualified from the race in July over an allegation that he may have contravened federal election law, which he has denied.
Brown had focused on courting support in the country’s immigrant communities, a strategy Charest has picked up since the ouster.
With Brown’s name still on the ballot, any voters who ranked him first will see their votes counted towards their second-choice picks.
Keller said he’s also curious to see how Leslyn Lewis performs. The MP surprised many with her strong showing when she entered the 2020 contest as a relative unknown, then ended up placing third behind O’Toole and winning Saskatchewan.
Like in the last race, she’s benefiting from support in the party’s well-mobilized social conservative wing, in part because of her opposition to abortion.
But Keller said with fewer candidates in the contest, she and Poilievre are fishing from the same pond. They have overlapping appeal, for different reasons.
“There’s a group of people who might say, ‘I really like Leslyn Lewis,”‘ he said. “‘I like what she stands for. But I really love Pierre Poilievre. So she’s gonna be my second choice, but Pierre’s my first choice.”‘
Rural Ontario MP Scott Aitchison and former Ontario legislator Roman Baber are the race’s two newest faces.
Aitchison, a former small-town mayor who was first elected as an MP in 2019, campaigned on the theme of restoring decency in politics and called out conspiracy theories that have become common in some Conservative circles, such as those around the World Economic Forum and vaccinations against COVID-19.
Baber was best known before the leadership race for getting kicked out of Premier Doug Ford’s caucus after he spoke out against COVID-19 lockdowns in January 2021 — a move he spent the campaign pointing to as evidence that he follows his convictions.
The final rankings of all five will be revealed at an event in downtown Ottawa under a more sombre atmosphere than initially planned, in reflection of the country’s mourning after the death of the Queen on Thursday.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 10, 2022.