Andrew Scheer not the only winner in Conservative leadership race

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Bold changes aren’t terribly conservative, which helps explain how Andrew Scheer became leader of the federal Conservative party.

But he wasn’t the only person who won something in this leadership race.

The entire process leading up to the surprising — for many — result offered a revealing look at the state of the party in 2017, two years after losing power and the departure of Stephen Harper.

Here’s some of what emerged:

A stay-the-course leader

Scheer didn’t campaign on the need for the Conservative Party to head in a bold new policy direction. His victory speech stuck to themes many Conservatives could be comfortable with.

“Sunny ways don’t pay the bills,” Scheer said, after pledging his party would be “looking for new ways to make life more affordable” as it “represents taxpayers, not connected Ottawa insiders.”

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Scheer is congratulated by Rona Ambrose after being elected the new leader of the federal Conservative party at the party’s convention in Toronto Saturday. (Frank Gunn/Canadian Press)

Popular interim leader Rona Ambrose could have given the same speech. So could Stephen Harper.

This race offered other options to the 141,000 members who voted.

Ontario MP Alex Nuttall, who worked hard to try to get Maxime Bernier in the driver’s seat, said before the result that “it’s a very difficult time for the mainstays of the party to see change happening.”

Bernier’s strong campaign, he felt, represented a “transitional, a generational change.” There was “no question,” he said, that Bernier’s ideas raised money and brought new members and new energy to the party.

They just didn’t get him elected.

Resurgent social conservatives

Apart from the result itself, the biggest surprise of the evening was the strong showing of candidate Brad Trost. Fundraising data foreshadowed that his fellow social conservative, Pierre Lemieux, had middling potential, but Trost’s appearance in the final four was unexpected.

It signaled a strong mobilization by the Conservative Party’s family values wing, which found two champions in this race and supported them to make sure their issues got a hearing.

It’s not clear their support helped Scheer win. He’s a strong Roman Catholic, but social conservatives criticized him for not being a strong enough advocate for their anti-abortion views.

“My job as leader is to encourage our members to focus on areas that bring us together,” Scheer said Saturday night. He added that as a House of Commons Speaker, he supported the right of individual MPs to introduce bills and motions they believe in, and he’ll do the same as leader.

While the social conservatives didn’t win, they certainly didn’t lose in this race either. Scheer’s challenge, like leaders before him, is to keep them engaged.

“Every single kind of Conservative is welcome in this party and this party belongs to all of you,” the new leader told the crowd.

A Campaign Life Coalition press release Saturday night urged him not to forget the family-friendly campaign pledges he made.

Conservative strategist Tim Powers said on CBC Radio’s The House that social conservatives were among those who “enhanced their stock” in this campaign.

Erin O’Toole, who hopscotched others to become a big federal player among Ontario Conservatives, and Lisa Raitt, who offered “a voice and conscience of party at a time when it was important to do so,” were also among those who’ve gained something by running, he said.

Peter Mansbridge speaks with Andrew Scheer7:44

Bruising defeats

Bernier jumped in early and ran a solid, platform-driven campaign that even rival camps largely respected.

His falter just short of the line deals a blow to the aspirations of the MPs and high-profile former candidates who backed him, including Tony Clement and Kevin O’Leary.

Scheer’s challenge will be to keep the new people Bernier brought into the party engaged, especially younger members.

Powers said there’s been no proof yet that Conservatives have succeeded with millennials and the party is “whistling past the graveyard if we don’t do more than simply give it lip service.”

Despite being under 40 himself, Scheer was seen as the favoured candidate of the party’s establishment.

Saturday’s result also spikes the perception that some populist nativism was taking hold, after Kellie Leitch’s “Canadian values” campaign sold a lot of memberships and raised a lot of money.

Her lower-than-expected finish is not only a blow to her personally, it suggests that when presented with an unabashed champion, the majority of this party wasn’t receptive to immigration-skeptic politics.

A win for unity?

In her Friday night speech, Raitt called on her party now to focus not on this past campaign, but the next one: the federal election in 2019.

“Every single Conservative in this country should be proud of the diversity on offer in this campaign,” she said. “The cost of this diversity though is that not everybody gets everything they want.”

“Come Monday, many people in our party will still be reconciling themselves to the fact that, on issues of importance, they do not share the position of our new leader,” she said. But, “come Monday, there is only one shade of blue.”

The screen behind Scheer as the balloons dropped from the ceiling Saturday night echoed her call: “United,” it read.

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Andrew Scheer speaks after his election Saturday, as his family gathers behind him: his wife, Jill, and, left to right, children Mary, one and a half, Thomas, 12, Henry, 6, and Grace, 10. (Frank Gunn/Canadian Press)

Scheer is a cheerful warrior who had a lot of caucus support. His platform wasn’t terribly divisive, and his political career features more time in the neutral House of Commons Speaker’s chair than the partisan trenches.

As he prepares to move his young family into his second official residence, Stornoway, he inherits a party, convention-goers were reminded, with potential to win again — it has more money, more members and its long, grassroots-driven leadership race appears a success.

“The era of big machine politics is actually over,” strategist Chad Rogers said.

“We said cynically at the start of this process, ‘No one will use a mail-in ballot, there’s too many people in the race, it’s too unwieldy,'” he said. “All of that is wrong.”

“All of the leading indicators have never supported the narrative of the death of the Conservative movement post-Stephen Harper.”

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Andrew Scheer not the only winner in Conservative leadership race

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