The federal Conservatives will hit another membership record in their latest leadership race, the party said as candidates raced to sign up new Tories before the midnight deadline on Friday.
The official numbers are to be released in July, and party president Robert Batherson said preliminary results would not be provided before then. But already, candidates jockeyed to frame the membership engagement as a boon for their campaigns.
Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown, previously the leader of the Ontario Progressive Conservatives and a Conservative MP before that, said he had recruited more than 150,000 new members with hours still left to register more people. “We have SMASHED our membership goal! And they’re still pouring in,” Mr. Brown said in a Twitter post.
More than 269,000 people registered for the 2020 leadership race – a record for the party. While some of those will have lapsed, others will still be active.
The party is “fully expecting that we will set a new record in total number of members,” Mr. Batherson said on Friday.
The five other candidates in the race declined to release the preliminary numbers of new members that they had registered, but former Quebec Premier Jean Charest said his camp’s recruitment efforts have given him a path to victory.
“Based on our recruitment, we have the points we need to win the leadership race,” Mr. Charest said in a statement.
Where the new members are is equally important to charting a winning strategy. The party’s leadership election uses both a ranked ballot and proportional representation. It assigns up to 100 points to candidates for each federal riding based on the candidate’s popular vote in any given riding, meaning that spreading out membership sales geographically and increasing sales in low membership ridings are crucial to victory.
“The whole point of this is to end up with a leader who has broad national appeal, who can win in as many ridings as possible,” Conservative strategist and writer Melanie Paradis said on Friday.
Ms. Paradis is staying neutral in the leadership race, but in 2020 was part of Erin O’Toole’s campaign. Mr. O’Toole beat front-runner Peter MacKay in that race despite signing up fewer new members than Mr. MacKay did. She said that’s because Mr. O’Toole recruited people in ridings with far fewer overall members, so a single vote had much more influence over the breakdown of the 100 points from a given riding.
Friday’s deadline to sign up new members marks a turning point for the candidates, who also include Ontario MPs Pierre Poilievre, Leslyn Lewis and Scott Aitchison and former Ontario MPP Roman Baber. The race will now move into the persuasion phase, in which the campaigns try to get supporters of other candidates to switch to them or to rank them high in down-ballot support.
Mr. Batherson said party staff will process and verify memberships, and once that is done, a preliminary list of members will be sent to the six candidates for their review so they can challenge the validity of memberships on the list.
Under rules approved in March, a July 29 deadline has been set to provide campaigns a final voters list.
This is the third leadership race for the party since 2015. The 2020 race showed that record membership sales don’t necessarily lead to high turnout. In that race, only about 65 per cent of eligible members ultimately voted in the race that won Mr. O’Toole his leadership. He was ousted by his caucus in February.
Conservative commentator Tim Powers, with Summa Strategies, said the campaigns will work to rally their supporters, and use “aggressive, targeted persuasion” with the general pool of voters in an attempt to get votes for a possible second ballot.
Mr. Powers said the re-election of Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative government may affect the campaign. “Ontario shows you don’t have to be in the face of voters all of the time, you don’t always have to chase wedge issues to win. Ford did both of those things in his early days,” Mr. Powers said.
With reports from Bill Curry
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