The Conservative Party of Canada (CPC) leadership race is getting more crowded this week with Ontario MP Leslyn Lewis announcing a bid and former Quebec Premier Jean Charest holding an event in Calgary Thursday.
Lewis joined Pierre Poilievre as the only declared candidates in the race Tuesday, hoping to reprise a surprisingly strong outsider bid in the party’s 2020 leadership contest – driven, in part, by the party’s influential social conservative wing.
A source close to Charest – who led the federal Progressive Conservatives before jumping to provincial politics – confirmed he will be announcing his candidacy at a Thursday night event in Calgary.
In Lewis, the party’s organized and influential social conservative wing has found a likely standard bearer. While Lewis has previously said she did not identify as social conservative before getting involved with the Conservative Party, she received top marks from Campaign Life Coalition – an influential social conservative group – in the 2020 leadership contest for her positions on abortion, euthanasia and “pro-family values.”
Her campaign will be helmed by Steve Outhouse, a veteran Conservative operator who managed her 2020 bid.
While social conservatives are just one of the factions that make up the Conservative coalition, they can have a significant impact on the party’s leadership contests – as evidenced by Lewis’ 2020 bid. The ranked-ballot nature of Conservative leadership races means other candidates will want to siphon Lewis’ supporters’ down-ballot support.
Charest’s candidacy is a significant wildcard in the race. A veteran politician accustomed to tough fights, Charest has nevertheless been out of federal politics for more than two decades. After deciding to stay out of the 2020 leadership race, Charest told reporters that the party had changed since his departure in 1998.
It hasn’t changed a whole lot in the intervening two years – except at the top.
But a source close to Charest said he’s already enlisted a credible team for his bid, managed by longtime Conservative Party activist Chris Rougier and co-chaired by Mike Coates, the executive chairman of Rubicon Strategies.
The source, who was not authorized to speak on the record before Charest makes the formal announcement, acknowledged that the former Quebec Liberal premier will have some work to do to win over the Conservatives’ western heartland.
The source said that’s “a big part” of why Charest is announcing in Calgary.
“He’s a national politician, this is a national leadership race. I think the bottom line is he cares about Alberta as much as he cares about his home province,” the source said.
“There is no leadership win within the west. But I think there’s a narrative that Pierre’s the only one that can win the west, and we’re not convinced that’s true … This is about rallying the broader movement but also being relevant to Canadians in the next federal election.”
According to new polling released by Abacus Data Tuesday, Charest (44 per cent) narrowly leads Poilievre (37 per cent) in positive or neural impressions among Canadians surveyed. Those positions flipped when Abacus polled current CPC voters – with 54 per cent of Conservative voters holding a positive or neutral impression of Poilievre, compared with 48 per cent for Charest.
(The poll was conducted from Feb. 23 to March 1 and interviewed 2,000 voting aged Canadians, and is considered accurate within 2.2 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.)
Poilievre’s perceived advantage with the Conservative Party members suggests to Abacus CEO David Coletto Charest has “a lot of work to do” to catch up.
Poilievre’s team has also been aggressive out of the gate, highlighting Charest’s legacy as a Liberal premier in Quebec. Speaking to Global News Tuesday, Sen. Leo Housakos – who is working with Poilievre’s leadership campaign – said the party needs to “repudiate” Charest who he called a “consensus” politician.
“There’s no more room for them in 2022. I think it’s time for conviction politics,” Housakos said.
“Hiding from your conservative values and principles and somehow trying to project that you’re a liberal lite, that doesn’t work. You have to be authentic in 2022, you have to give Canadians a clear vision of where you’re going, what you stand for.”
But Yaroslav Baran, a managing principle at Earnscliffe Strategies and a former senior staffer in the Stephen Harper era, said Charest should not be underestimated.
“He is a serious contender. And this is definitely going to be a genuinely competitive race,” Baran said in an interview with Global Tuesday.
“They both (Charest and Poilievre) have their strengths that they bring to the table, and they would both be a credible challenge to Mr. Trudeau, albeit for different reasons,” Baran added, pointing to Poilievre’s ability to deliver and debate Conservative ideas on his own turf and Charest’s experience and depth on policy issues.
Another rumoured contender, Brampton, Ont., mayor Patrick Brown, is said to be still mulling a potential bid. Brown resigned as Ontario PC leader after CTV reported in 2018 that two women accused him of sexual misconduct. Brown announced a multi-million defamation suit against the broadcaster in April 2018.
A source close to Brown, also not authorized to speak on the record, said Brown is “taking a lot of calls from Conservatives across the country who are encouraging him to run and he’s listening and having good conversations.”
“We will see soon what he does,” the source added.
Candidates have until April 19 to declare their intention to run, and until June 3 to sign up new members eligible to contest. The next leader will be announced on Sept. 10.