Many organizers and strategists feel the Conservatives damaged their brand by attempting to continue the race despite the COVID-19 pandemic
OTTAWA — At the beginning of the week, many Conservative Party officials were still hoping their leadership race could be kept on schedule, despite increasing calls from inside and outside the party to suspend it due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
But by the end of the week, the party finally succumbed to the mounting logistical problems of sticking to a June vote, and announced the race will be suspended for at least a month.
The decision capped off a prolonged controversy that has left almost nobody happy.
Candidates who’ve been eliminated are furious the party decided to suspend the race just one day after the final entry deadline, and is not budging on extending it.
Peter MacKay’s campaign had spent all day Thursday publicly and privately calling for the party to not delay the race, but lost the argument.
Meanwhile, many longtime organizers and strategists feel the Conservatives damaged their brand by attempting to continue the race despite a pandemic that’s crippled Canada’s economy and threatens to overwhelm the health-care system. Fundraising pitches felt tone-deaf at best, while candidates with lower name recognition were hugely handicapped by not being able to campaign in person, normally the foundation of building a leadership campaign.
But some party officials felt it was important for the Conservatives to have a permanent leader in place and were determined to keep the race on track if at all possible.
The decision to suspend was made at a Thursday night meeting of the leadership election organizing committee (LEOC). Although there was growing pressure to delay the race, including from the party’s national council, sources with direct knowledge of the discussions say it was logistical problems that ultimately forced LEOC’s hand.
A key turning point came Tuesday at midnight, when a mandatory order took effect in Ontario for non-essential workplaces to close. Until then the Conservative Party’s headquarters in Ottawa had still been operating with a skeletal staff, but now there was nobody to carry out even basic functions such as opening the mail.
LEOC also had concerns about how the pandemic would affect Canada Post operations and the third-party vendors needed to handle a national voting process. The party’s constitution requires the option of a mail-in ballot for a leadership vote, and a majority of LEOC’s members felt it was just too risky to try to proceed with voting.
“While Conservative members can vote from the safety of their home, there are, however, processes around the mail ballot that can be affected by COVID-19 containment measures, including a mail ballot requiring a large group of people in one place in order to properly check voting requirements and process the ballot,” said a statement from the party on Friday.
“The safety and health of volunteers has been top of mind for LEOC and staff. Party staff concluded measures could be taken to alleviate concerns, but would mean a delayed announcement date if current measures in place in many provinces maintained over the course of the coming weeks and months.”
The leadership race will now be suspended until at least May 1. The debates scheduled for April have been cancelled, as has the June 27 leadership convention in Toronto. LEOC will continue to meet over the next few weeks and will eventually decide on a new timeline.
The safety and health of volunteers has been top of mind for LEOC and staff
“Until May 1, 2020, there will be a suspension of leadership fundraising,” the party said. It also encouraged candidates “to refrain from contacting party members until after a decision is taken on May 1, 2020.”
The cutoff for membership sales has been extended from April 17 to May 15. If LEOC sticks to that date, a vote could theoretically still take place this summer.
However, some in the party are pushing for the vote to be delayed until the party’s policy convention scheduled for Nov. 12 to 14 in Quebec City. In that scenario, the membership sales cutoff would likely happen in September. (Membership sales are an absolutely crucial part of the race, as candidates sign up new party members who’ll cast a vote for them.)
The party, however, is not making any concessions on the final entry deadline that passed on March 25 and eliminated Marilyn Gladu and Rudy Husny (Rick Peterson had already withdrawn). Party officials, speaking on background, said Gladu and Husny were not anywhere close to meeting the full entry requirements of $300,000 and 3,000 signatures. However, their supporters point out they were effectively unable to campaign for three weeks.
Four candidates are now set for the final ballot: MacKay, Erin O’Toole, Derek Sloan and Leslyn Lewis. O’Toole and Sloan had both called on the party to delay the race, though Sloan said in a message to supporters on Friday that he’s worried the party will still try to plow ahead with a quick vote.
Both Lewis and MacKay had wanted the race to stay on schedule. But MacKay’s team decided to aggressively campaign for it, and even called for the vote to be sped up — an effort that fell flat. On Thursday night, MacKay said he respects LEOC’s decision.
“It is my honour and inspiration to have been active and part of this contest over the last 8 weeks and I look forward with optimism to the journey forward to government for the Conservative Party of Canada,” he posted on Twitter.
Subscribe to our news podcast, 10/3, on Apple Podcasts