There was Erin O’Toole, the new Leader of the Conservative Party, facing the same question that dogged Andrew Scheer, the old leader of the Conservative Party. It looked a lot easier for Mr. O’Toole.
The goal for Mr. O‘Toole at his news conference Tuesday was to introduce himself as a big-tent politician who isn’t beholden to the social conservatives in his party – those activists who, in the end, helped him clinch the Conservative leadership.
The Ontario MP for Durham, who ran his campaign as a real, “true blue conservative,” who promised to fight lefty cancel culture, was sounding like a moderate again. Erin O’Toole the middle man was back. He was telling Canadians he wants to widen the doors to his party.
Mr. O’Toole won the leadership of the Conservative Party in a strikingly similar way to Mr. Scheer – by recruiting single-issue activists in Quebec to join the party and vote in the dozens of dormant Tory ridings in Quebec, and by convincing anti-abortion social conservatives who mobilized in big numbers that he was an acceptable second choice.
But at his first news conference, Mr. O’Toole distanced himself from his social conservative backers more effortlessly than Mr. Scheer ever did.
Like Mr. Scheer, Mr. O’Toole campaigned as a conservative who would not criminalize abortion, but who would welcome anti-abortionists in the party. Unlike Mr. Scheer, who acted like he couldn’t admit his own social conservative views, Mr. O’Toole quickly asserted he isn’t one of them.
On Day 2, Mr. O’Toole was telling people he was pro-choice. “I have a track record of always voting in favour of rights, whether it’s the rights of women, with respect to choice, whether it’s the LGBT community,” he said.
Of course, Mr. O’Toole was expecting the question. It’s a rite of passage for Conservative leaders now, especially because Mr. Scheer never got past it. Answering it directly allowed Mr. O’Toole to get to his main message: that he wants a lot more people to feel they belong in his party – racialized minorities, members of the LGBTQ community, Indigenous Canadians, “and more women.”
There wasn’t much of anything on policy, or specifics. He said he’d be ready for a snap election, which is bravado more than realism, but warned Prime Minister Justin Trudeau against triggering one. But this wasn’t, despite the billing, an attempt by the new Leader to lay out his priorities. It was an introduction.
Most people, after all, don’t know who Mr. O’Toole is. The 47-year-old was a relatively junior minister in Stephen Harper’s cabinet, and won a physically distant leadership campaign many didn’t see. For many Canadians, he was saying hello for the first time – no longer the candidate trying to prove his conservative purity, but a leader telling everyone they are welcome.
Whether the social conservatives who clinched victory for Mr. O’Toole will feel he peeled himself away too quickly remains to be seen. But Mr. O’Toole was always a middle-ground Conservative donning the garb of a culture warrior to appeal to the modern Conservative Party’s activist core. Being the second choice for social conservatives is a proven winning tactic in Conservative leadership races.
Like Mr. Scheer, Mr. O’Toole’s path to the leadership went through Quebec. Mr. O’Toole’s campaign recruited gun-rights activists to vote in the dozens of dormant Quebec ridings where there are few party members – just as Mr. Scheer had recruited Quebec dairy farmers in 2017. Because each of Canada’s 338 ridings is equally weighted at 100 points, a few votes in those places racked up a lot of points. In Avignon-La Mitis-Matane-Matapédia, for example, Mr. O’Toole won 52.27 points with 23 votes.
Mr. O’Toole overtook the front-runner, Peter MacKay, in the same way that Mr. Scheer had passed Maxime Bernier – being the second and third choice of anti-abortion, social conservative candidates who fell off the ballot.
That was a tactical victory, relying on organizing specific constituencies inside his own party.
Now, Mr. O’Toole is moving on to something else, a wider appeal to a broad swath of Canadians. Already, Mr. O’Toole seems to have made that shift more decisively than his predecessor. There was no bold new O’Toole vision on view, but the new Leader found an easier way past the question that dogged his predecessor, and got through the introductions.
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