Genial former speaker Scheer wins tight contest to lead Canadian Tories

Former House of Commons speaker Andrew Scheer narrowly won the Conservative Party leadership on May 27. (Facebook)

There will be no populist wave — for now — set to sweep Canada.

After flirting with the harshly anti-immigrant Kellie Leitch, reality television star Kevin O’Leary and Québec libertarian and party stalwart Maxime Bernier, Canada’s Conservative Party has elected a far more mild-mannered leader in Andrew Scheer, a genial 38-year-old MP from Saskatchewan.

Think of Scheer (pronounced ‘share’) as the love child of Brad Wall (the Saskatchewan premier) and Stephen Harper (the former prime minister), but with a better smile. An MP from Regina since 2004, Scheer is the first Conservative, Progressive Conservative or Canadian Alliance leader from the province since John Diefenbaker, prime minister from 1957 to 1963.

In a sense, Scheer is the smartest choice that Canada’s Tories could have made. He is an approachable and friendly Conservative who could serve as a relatively pragmatic foil to the popular Liberal prime minister Justin Trudeau, whose still-high favorability ratings have slumped somewhat since his party’s landslide victory in the September 2015 election over the current budget, proposed alcohol tax increases and ongoing concerns about the state of the economy.

In Leitch, Canada’s conservatives might have tapped into a potent vein of economic anxiety and nationalist populism, though that has never traditionally been a style capable of winning a general election in Canada.

In O’Leary, at least before he dropped out, they might have tapped into a less vulgar version of Donald Trump — a novice and a showman with a fresh approach to Ottawa.

In Bernier, a former foreign minister, they might have tapped into a powerful new flavor of libertarian conservatism, from Francophone Canada, nonetheless, who was willing to put principle over surface-level popularity (as Bernier demonstrated time and again in his willingness to oppose the ‘supply management’ system that benefits dairy farmers, but which would also have lowered milk prices for consumers nationwide).

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RELATED: As O’Leary exits race, Canadian Tories focus on a more conventional leadership race

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But in a country where ‘nice’ counts, and where Trudeau glided his way to power in no small part due to his novelty, youth and optimism, Scheer is perhaps the best-matched opponent to take on Trudeau in the next election, due sometime before October 2019. When Scheer moves into Stornoway, the official residence of the opposition leader in Ottawa, he will do so as a father of five children and fully seven years younger than Trudeau, an approachable and pragmatic prairie conservative with a telegenic family. It doesn’t hurt that Scheer grew up in Ottawa, and so he is at ease in both French and English (unlike several of his English-speaking competitors and unlike even Bernier, who speaks English with a heavy French accent).

It took 13 ballots (with a preferred ranking system) to determine a winner and, while everyone assumed that Scheer would benefit as the most likable consensus second-choice candidate, Bernier went into the race the clear favorite, with O’Leary’s high-profile endorsement (after the Shark Tank star dropped out of the race) and a compelling vision for the future of Canadian conservatism.

Ultimately, however, as minor and then second-tier candidates fell aside ballot by ballot — including third-placed candidate, Ontario MP Erin O’Toole, who led in endorsements from fellow MPs and was also seen as an amicable consensus candidate — Scheer narrowly edged out Bernier, who led the first 12 ballots. On the first ballot, Bernier led with 28.89% to 21.82%.

Throughout the contest, especially after O’Leary endorsed him, Bernier was favored to win the leadership, with Scheer set to win the runner-up spot as the party’s ‘Mr. Congeniality.’

But Conservative voters, especially those in Bernier’s home province, hesitated to unite around Bernier, who would have pulled the party to a much more hostile position toward the public sector, challenging not only subsidies for favored Canadian industries but questioning the long-settled role of the state in everything from taxation to health care. In particular, Quebecois voters had doubts about Bernier, and they supported him in smaller numbers than anticipated.

Scheer, who successfully offended the smallest number of voters, could benefit from serving for the last four years of the Harper administration as the speaker of the House of Commons, a non-partisan role that shielded him from the fray of everyday politics in Harper’s final government. That may ultimately serve to Scheer’s benefit as he hopes to draw a stylistic (if not substantive) contrast with the past. Despite serving as speaker, Scheer is a reliable Conservative who favors balancing the budget and who is conciliatory to the social conservatives that dominate the party’s western wing, even if he didn’t go out of his way to highlight hot-button issues like abortion or LGBT rights.

Notably, the social conservative and anti-LGBT Brad Trost (also an MP from Saskatchewan) wound up in fourth place, outpacing Leitch, who dominated coverage of the race at the end of 2016. Leitch, an Ontario MP and former labor minister, won just 7.00% of the first-round ballot, and was eliminated in sixth place overall. Michael Chong, an Ontario MP who urged a big-tent approach and promised to implement a carbon tax — not an easy sell on the Canadian right — finished in fifth place.

As he moves from former House speaker to unlikely Tory leadership challenger to the leader of the opposition, however, Scheer will have to provide a more robust policy program than just being more agreeable than his opponent. As only the second leader of the Conservative Party that formed as a merger of two smaller parties in 2003, he will also have to unite a party clearly divided by many factors — geographically, on social issues, on immigration and on economics. Scheer’s first test will be to name a shadow cabinet that balances those factions while presenting a coherent and unified team.

Scheer-as-Harper-with-a-smile might have been enough to win the leadership, but it may not be enough to topple Trudeau’s majority government in 2019, even if the shine wears off after a full term.

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