Chairman's Desk

Why so many candidates are still in race to lead Tories

There will be only one winner with the dream of leading the Conservatives to power. The other 13 would-be leaders will face the harsh reality of the May 27 leadership vote — and for some it will not be pretty.

Early last year, I joked that the Conservative leadership race was more like the story of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs than a contest for head of a national party. Today, as more and more would-be leaders jump into the pool, I’ve come to think of it as the story of 101 Dalmatians.

The number of entrants is eye-popping; especially for a party that many pundits have assigned a snowball’s shot in hell of winning the next election.

Watching the leadership debates — with 14 participants strolling onto the stage one by one — is like watching a seemingly impossible number of clowns pop out of a Volkswagen Beetle. And the debates themselves don’t seem to be debates so much as hours-long question-and-answer snore fests with as little chance of risk, spontaneity and mistakes as possible.

Indeed, more than once, a few of the leadership contestants have looked perilously close to dozing off during what should be a career-defining event.

The decision to enter a leadership campaign is not one made lightly. It involves raising hundreds of thousands of dollars to campaign non-stop across the country for months.

It’s a strain on health, personal finances and family.

And to top it all off, candidates are competing for a sometimes dubious prize — one that comes with an even more punishing life. A party leader must renew their commitment to non-stop campaigning. In public, that means everything from a strawberry social in Charlottetown to meeting in a church basement in Kelowna.

And within the backrooms of their own party, the new leader has to survive dark rumblings from a caucus desperate to return to power, not all that confident it now has the right leader for the job.

So why have so many Conservatives taken the plunge? It is, after all, a contest that will end in disappointment for 13, and an impossibly daunting task for the ‘lucky’ winner.

An observer of U.S. politics once remarked that every morning, 535 members of Congress look at themselves in the mirror and see a future president staring back at them.

The same is true in Canada.

The prospect of leading a party that is but one election cycle away from winning government and launching a new chapter in political history is very tempting for many who have, for years, looked at and listened to Stephen Harper and thought, ‘I could do better.’

That’s why, when there’s an opening for the leadership of one of the two federal parties in Canada that have formed government, the work begins in earnest.

With major candidates such as John Baird, Peter MacKay and Jason Kenney absent from the current federal Conservative party contest, the race becomes even more attractive to other contestants.

The simple fact there is no clear front-runner with a run away band wagon of support means that not one candidate’s chances are as good as an other.

The fee to get into the race was $100,000 — an amount most members of Parliament and business people who want to enter politics could easily raise. And, many will feel that, with so many candidates to split the vote, they have a hope of winning.

But it is an unpleasant fact that 13 of the contenders will lose. An even more unpleasant fact is that a significant number will lose quite badly, ending with as little as 2 per cent of the vote.

Why, then, are they all still in the race? Why haven’t some of them dropped out, and spared themselves the embarrassment?

There are a number of reasons.

For many of the 14, it is like the first round of a poker game. The have anted up, their money is in, so why not wait and see what happens?

For some, they are running not so much to win this time, but more to raise their profile and build their network for a second run against Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Others are on a mission to raise the profile of an issue they care deeply about; a good example is Rick Peterson’s one-man mission to rid Canada of corporate income tax

And then, of course, there is yet another reason — vanity.

Many candidates didn’t receive this much attention when they were elected to Parliament 10 years ago with visions of stars in their eyes. They are flattered by the sustained media and Internet attention.

Many of the 14 candidates are deluding themselves that they have a chance at winning. Perhaps it’s a delusion that can be forgiven, but on May 27 they will face the harsh reality of the results of the leadership vote.

I would wager, however, that several people will wake up the morning of May 28 kicking themselves for having let the glare of attention blind them to the reality of the result.

Jaime Watt is the executive chairman of Navigator Ltd. and a Conservative strategist.

This article first appeared in the Toronto Star on March 19, 2017.

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