Decision to delay leadership race leaves ‘sour taste’ among Conservatives

Decision to delay leadership race leaves ‘sour taste’ among Conservatives
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OTTAWA–The federal Conservative Party’s suspension of its leadership contest amid the COVID-19 crisis was met Friday with stiff criticism from some party members.

After weeks of mounting pressure, the party committee in charge of the race agreed to suspend the contest late Thursday night, reversing a decision from a week earlier to soldier on with the original schedule despite growing concerns about the pandemic.

The committee said it was “no longer possible” to meet the deadlines to print and process ballots in time for a June 27 vote.

But some candidates — including those who could not submit the required $300,000 in fees and 3,000 signatures by Wednesday’s cut-off — had been calling for some time for the party to relax its deadlines, saying campaigning was made all but impossible during the pandemic.

“You have completely disgraced our party. Shame on you all,” said Georgeanne Burke, a long-time Conservative activist who was working on MP Marilyn Gladu’s campaign.

“I think making these decisions seemingly in a vacuum is going to leave a sour taste in the mouths of a lot of Conservatives, especially people who have been supporting campaigns and working very hard,” said Jenni Byrne, a Conservative strategist and former senior party official.

Byrne pointed out that while the vote on June 27 is delayed, the party is still maintaining a cut-off date for campaigns to sign up new members who would be eligible to vote. The committee is also set to review the suspension on May 1, meaning more scheduling changes are possible.

The leadership race may have lost some urgency in the midst of the pandemic, but Byrne and former colleague Rachel Curran say a strong opposition is critical at a time when the Liberal minority government is doling out massive amounts of money to manage an economic and public health and emergency.

“Canadians have much bigger concerns on their minds than the Conservative leadership race,” said Curran, who served as director of policy in the Prime Minister’s Office under Stephen Harper.

“(But) there are other ways to talk to Canadians about their concerns. (The candidates) have literally a captive audience who are at home and looking for reassurance from political leaders, looking for suggestions around some of those solutions that might be necessary in the coming weeks and months.”

Curran noted that MacKay spent much of Thursday publicly pushing the party to keep the vote on June 27, which was “not ideal” when most Canadians were “thinking and talking about nothing other than the current crisis.

“I think you have to be responsive to that,” she said.

A source in the MacKay campaign, who discussed internal party matters on the condition they not be named, told the Star that they felt the party’s membership wanted to move ahead with the race to install a permanent leader.

“I think Peter communicated that it was first of all necessary for democratic processes to continue,” the source said, noting Toronto lawyer and leadership candidate Leslyn Lewis also wanted the campaign to continue.

Asked if MacKay was putting his leadership ambitions ahead of the party’s interests, the source said, “No, because I think the people who are saying that haven’t talked to the membership.”

Erin O’Toole’s camp said Friday that it was encouraging supporters to shift their focus from leadership politics to the crisis at hand — although O’Toole was still scheduled to continue “virtual” campaigning throughout the weekend.

Process bickering aside, the delay is unlikely to change the overall dynamic of the race, according to Conservative strategist Jason Lietaer.

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“It’s obvious that Mr. MacKay is in the lead, it’s obvious that Mr. O’Toole is his main and only challenger,” Lietaer said Friday.

“I don’t think that changes in terms of the timing of the race. I don’t expect that to have a big impact,” he said.

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“But it does give both of them the opportunity to retool, refine and adapt. For Mr. O’Toole, that means trying to save his candidacy and try to have a shot at winning this thing, and for Mr. MacKay, that means consolidating a lead and driving it home.”

Lietaer said that while the party’s pause on fundraising means MacKay can’t press that advantage, “when you’re ahead, you’re ahead.

“The problem that Mr. O’Toole has? If you’re trying to make up a lead and everything is frozen in amber, it’s very hard to make up that deficit,” Lietaer said.
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