Looking beyond the Tory leadership race

Conservatives need to choose a candidate who can win a general election.

Conservatives need to choose a candidate who can broaden party tent in Central Canada.

Conservatives need to choose a candidate who can broaden party tent in Central Canada.

The Conservative leadership race recently got a little more interesting with the totally unexpected announcement that businessman Kevin O’Leary decided to throw his hat into the ring.

O’Leary instantly becomes one of the strongest candidates in the field populated by  14 hopefuls and can bank on his name-recognition from his appearances on CBC’s ‘Dragon’s Den’, a reality show program where aspiring entrepreneurs pitch their ideas and ask for funding from a wealthy panel of investors.

While there is a high likelihood that O’Leary can wind up with the nomination, it remains unclear how he would fare in a general election.

O’Leary is unilingual; he only speaks English, which — as much as people say doesn’t matter — is usually important to finding a path to victory given that the country has two official languages.

Winning a general election comes down to a simple math equation.

It’s in the numbers.

There are 338 seats up for grabs across the country, so in order to form a majority government, a party must capture 170.

The western provinces have 104 seats, while the three Territories have three.

Even if the Conservatives sweep every single seat in the west (unrealistic, but hypothetically speaking), they would still have to eat into the Liberal power base of Ontario and Quebec to pick up enough ridings to form government.

Again, it’s a numbers game.

The 2015 federal election throws a wrench into the analysis because the number of federal ridings increased from 308 to 338, but the basic argument still stands.

in 2011, former Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper campaigned with a message asking Canadian voters to give him a majority government, which he got once the results were tallied.

How did he get his majority?

Essentially, the Conservatives picked up 22 seats in Ontario, largely at the expense of the Liberal party, which also lost seats to the the surging NDP. Add that to a (relatively) predictable estimate of seats from Western provinces and there you go.

Quebec is also an interesting variable in a general election.

The Cons have had mixed results there over the last decade; winning 10 seats in 2006 and holding that same number in 2008, while losing half in 2011. Even though they lost power in 2015, they gained those back and currently hold 12 ridings in La Belle province.

Whomever ends up with the nomination is going to have to make some noise in central Canada for the Conservative Party, but O’Leary is not going to be that candidate.

As far as O’Leary’s appeal goes, it’s easy to call him Canada’s Donald Trump.

They’re both famous as a result of reality TV shows, have obscene wealth and have cultivated a public business-savvy image. Like Trump, O’Leary is brash and not afraid to speak his mind.

Conservatives are looking south at the electoral success of Trump and salivating at the potentially replicating it with O’Leary.

However, there is a danger of association to Trump for the O’Leary campaign, especially given the tire fire of contradictory messaging coming from the White House from Sean Spicer through daily press conferences.

Guaranteed that will be the Liberal and NDP strategy — paint O’Leary as Donald Trump-lite and it stands a good chance of working given the international public opinion of the 45th president of the United States and the similarities of their campaign styles.

Once the golden gleam wears off Trump’s presidential victory and the world sees the damage that his protectionist trade agenda is going to do to the Western economy by 2019 (the next Canadian election), then no one is going to want to be associated with his brand.

O’Leary would be a great Conservative candidate and party leader, but he won’t be able to defect Liberal, NDP and Bloc Quebecois voters to the Tory banner.

And that is what the Conservatives need to win back the House of Commons.

Rona Ambrose is doing an admirable job of heading up the Cons as interim leader, however, party rules stipulate that the interim leader isn’t able to run in the leadership contest.

O’Leary, Maxime Bernier and Lisa Raitt round out as the top three candidates, while the other 11 qualify as also-rans. Andrew Scheer, the former Speaker of the House, is maybe a dark horse, considering he has the most support of sitting Conservative MPs.

At the end of the day, whomever captures the Conservative nomination is going to have to widen the party tent in Ontario and Quebec to create a path to general election victory. Western ridings will likely be safe considering how unpopular Justin Trudeau is in rural British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan.

So when the leadership convention comes around, Conservative party members must ask themselves, if they want to win a general election: Who has the ability to win central Canada?