TORONTO – U.S. President Donald Trump’s presence loomed over the Conservative leadership race and it was felt Saturday too as members gathered to select their new leader.
During the 15-month campaign there were candidates like Kellie Leitch who borrowed directly from Trump’s political playbook, and of course Kevin O’Leary’s brief stint drew the closest comparisons, given the duo share a background in reality television and business.
But where Trump’s influence surfaced on Saturday was among party members who said his campaign was the reason they’d signed up to vote in the Conservative race.
The Tories now count 259,000 people among their members, a figure slightly higher than in their last leadership contest in 2004 that saw Stephen Harper easily elected.
Many were drawn in this time directly by the 13 candidates vying to replace him, but party officials said tens of thousands more appeared to be motivated to sign up on their own.
Paul Alexander was one.
He’s never voted Conservative in his life, but took out a membership just a month ago specifically to try to guard against the potential for a leader to be elected who could polarize Canadians in the same manner as Trump polarized the U.S. electorate.
“I decided to join up so I could cast a ballot for someone who was going to take a more sensible and fair minded approach,” he said after he cast a ballot Saturday.
“At some point there is going to be another election and it’s either going to be between reasonable and fair-minded candidates or its going to be between unreasonable candidates. And I think the democracy we have is going to be stronger overall if we’ve got fair minded and decent people running.”
Megan Thomas said her motivation to buy a membership card back in December was similar.
She’s voted all over the political spectrum, she said, and a key take-away for her from the U.S. election is the need for people to get engaged in the political process.
“A lot of people stayed home in that election and people are now worried,” she said.
On her way in to cast a ballot, she was handed a pamphlet from a group opposed to abortion that let people know which candidates shared similar views.
“If I stayed home this time, we might end up with this,” she said, gesturing at the brochure.
Petras Harvie cast his ballot wearing a “Make America Great Hat,” Trump’s own campaign slogan.
“You hear about people trying to make a different in the U.S., and you don’t hear about Canadian politics and so that’s where I live and so I have to get involved,” he said.
Voter turnout in the Conservative race was already up over 2004 levels before in-person ballots were cast.
The party said 132,000 votes were sent in by mail, so just over 50 per cent of members.
In 2004, about 37 per cent of the party’s then-250,000 members voted for Stephen Harper, who would go on to lead Conservatives to two minority governments and a majority one, before losing that in 2015.
Sixteen people were at one point vying to replace him but only 13 survived until the end of the contest.
Longtime member Mike Salterio, who came to the convention from Halifax, said he was most enthused about how many young people appear to have engaged in the race.
“That means right across the country we are starting to attract younger people,” he said.
“Us older guys, it’s time to step back a little bit and let them do it.”
While O’Leary dropped out of the race and threw his support to Maxime Bernier, his name remains on the ballot as he left the race too late to have it withdrawn.
He’s still expected to nab some votes; the Conservatives are using a preferential ballot allowing members to rank their choices from one to ten.
If no candidate receives more than 50 per cent of the vote on the first count, the last-place contender is eliminated and his or her supporters’ second choices are counted until one emerges with a majority.
The majority however is not achieved in votes but in points. Every riding in the country is allocated 100 points, and how many each candidate gets depends on their share of votes in that riding.
Most expect several rounds of counting to be required Saturday before a winner is declared.