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Globe and Mail columnist Adam Radwanski.
Globe and Mail columnist Adam Radwanski.

OPINION

O’Leary has not exactly swamped the Conservatives with new recruits Add to ...

Kevin O’Leary has not staged a takeover of the Conservative Party of Canada.

The 35,338 party memberships that the reality-TV star claims to have sold, in advance of this week’s cutoff for recruitment before the Tories’ leadership vote this May, might represent a respectable couple of months’ work for a candidate who got into the race very late.

But unless Mr. O’Leary is significantly lowballing his signup success – and if anything leadership campaigns tend to inflate their own numbers, which are not verifiable – he has not enlisted enough supporters to be able to overwhelm the party’s pre-existing membership, let alone that base plus tens of thousands of new members recruited by his opponents.

That’s doesn’t mean he couldn’t yet lead the Official Opposition into the next election. He may even be a front-runner to do so, as he has been cast since declaring his candidacy in January.

What it does mean is that winning a contest with somewhere in the range of 150,000-200,000 eligible voters requires him to earn the trust of people he didn’t recruit – many of whom have shown more commitment to the party and its established values than he has himself.

It is neither an easy path to victory, nor the one that seemed most available to him at the outset.

Mr. O’Leary appeared to have both the biggest need to recruit new members and the greatest potential to do so, among the more competitive candidates in the Tories’ crowded 14-person field. Unlike other contenders, he had accumulated no loyalty with the base, nor did he have caucus support he could lean upon. What he did have was celebrity, courtesy mostly of TV shows on which he judges business pitches, and with it a large social media following that he could try to convert into membership sales.

Seasoned organizers he hired to work on his campaign did leverage some of that profile during the recruitment drive. Even taking into account that there is no reliable way of knowing how candidates’ sales efforts stack up – party officials won’t even announce the total number of new members for many weeks – it’s fairly obvious from various numbers floating around that he sold at a faster clip than anyone else.

But it certainly doesn’t appear to be the domination that was feared by some veterans of a party that had fewer than 100,000 members when he jumped in – roughly one-sixth of his Twitter following.

Maybe it was never realistic to expect that most people who enjoy Mr. O’Leary on TV, and might even find him entertaining as a public figure, would want to help him try to become prime minister. Probably it would have been easier for him if the party had not brought in a new rule, ending the use of cash payments for memberships, aimed at ensuring recruits pay their own $15 fee rather than having campaigns do it on their behalf.

And certainly, Mr. O’Leary should be kicking himself for waiting much longer than any other candidate to actually start running, squandering many months he should have been hustling.

If that makes sense in hindsight, it’s more confounding that Mr. O’Leary might still have a shot anyway.

Since his January launch, the word from all leadership camps has been that – because of perceived winnability against Justin Trudeau, or admiration of his perceived business success, or even appeal to old Progressive Conservatives who see him as less aligned with Reform Party principles than most of his rivals – he has gotten surprising traction with pre-existing members.

It’s still hard to fathom that someone who could not even be bothered to participate in most leadership debates will be able to persuade enough such people to mark their preferential ballots for him, if not first, then second or third. And if that does come to pass, many Conservative stalwarts – including much of caucus – will still feel their party has been stolen from them.

But whatever this is, it’s not that. If Mr. O’Leary is to win, it will have to be a rebellion from within.

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